It was 1786 when Arthur Phillip, an ambitious captain in the Royal Navy, was assigned the formidable task of organizing an expedition to Australia in order to establish a penal colony. The squalid and turbulent prisons of London were overflowing, and crime was on the rise. Even the hulks sifting at anchor in the Thames were packed with malcontent criminals and petty thieves. So the English government decided to undertake the unprecedented move of shipping off its convicts to a largely unexplored landmass at the other end of the world.
Using the personal journals and documents that were kept during this expedition, historian/novelist Thomas Keneally re-creates the grueling overseas voyage, a hellish, suffocating journey that claimed the lives of many convicts. Miraculously, the fleet reached the shores of what was then called New South Wales in 1788, and after much trial and error, the crew managed to set up a rudimentary yet vibrant settlement. As governor of the colony, Phillip took on the challenges of dealing with unruly convicts, disgruntled officers, a bewildered, sometimes hostile native population, as well as such serious matters as food shortages and disease. Moving beyond Phillip, Keneally offers captivating portrayals of Aborigines, who both aided and opposed Phillip, and of the settlers, including convicts who were determined to overcome their pasts and begin anew.
With the authority of a renowned historian and the narrative grace of a brilliant novelist, Thomas Keneally offers an insider's perspective into the dramatic saga of the birth of a vibrant society in an unfamiliar land. A Commonwealth of Thieves immerses us in the fledgling penal colony and conjures up colorful scenes of the joy and heartbreak, the thrills and hardships that characterized those first four improbable years. The result is a lively and engrossing work of history, as well as a tale of redemption for the thousands of convicts who started new lives thousands of miles from their homes.
Keneally (Schindler's List) offers a novelistic chronicle of the founding of the colony now known as Australia, focusing on the first five years, 1788 to 1793, when the initial flotillas of boats carrying convicts, their military guard and administrators arrived in New South Wales. At the book's center is the relationship between Arthur Phillip, the pragmatic first governor, and Woolawarre Bennelong, the Aborigine who eventually served as a liaison between the settlers and natives. Keneally describes their first meeting "as fateful and defining as that between Cort�s and Montezuma, or Pizarro and Atahualpa." Using their relationship as a prism, Keneally depicts the instances of tense commingling between the two communities. His historical narrative is so detailed as to at times feel dutiful. He's most successful serving up some of the dozens of pithy mini-portraits of the lowborn settlers. Like Robert Hughes in his seminal The Fatal Shore, Keneally seeks to correct some of the clich�s that have arisen. He's careful to point out that the few thousand convicts sent to the colony were hardly the worst of the worst. Keneally's new consideration won't replace Hughes's definitive work, but with its colorful and eloquent prose, it makes for a compelling companion piece, one that credits Phillip for most of the colony's success. Maps. (Oct.)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 03, 2007
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Excerpt from A Commonwealth of Thieves by Thomas Keneally
If, in the New Year of 1788, the eye of God had strayed from the main games of Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Africa, and idled over the huge vacancy of sea to the south-east of Africa, it would have been surprised in this empty zone to see not one, but all of eleven ships being driven east on the screaming band of westerlies. This was many times more than the number that had ever been seen here, in a sea so huge and vacant that in today's conventional atlases no one map represents it. The people on the eleven ships were lost to the world. They had celebrated their New Year at 44 degrees South latitude with "hard salt beef and a few musty pancakes." Their passage was in waters turbulent with gales, roiling from an awful collision between melted ice from the Antarctic coast and warm currents from the Indian Ocean behind them, and the Pacific ahead. High and irregular seas broke over the decks continuously, knocking the cattle in their pens off their legs. The travelers knew they were past the rocks of sub-Antarctic Kerguelen Island and were reaching for the dangerous southern capes of Van Diemen's Land, which they intended to round on their way to their destination.
What would have intrigued the divine eye was the number of vessels-though they travelled in two sections, each division separated from the other by a few hundred miles. So far in the history of Europe, only six ships had come into this area named the Southern Ocean, which lay between the uncharted south coast of New Holland (later to be known as Australia) and Antarctica's massive ice pack. In 1642, a Dutchman, Abel Tasman, a vigorous captain of the Dutch East India Company, had crossed this stretch to discover the island he would name Van Diemen's Land after his Viceroy in Batavia (now Jakarta), but which would in the end be named Tasmania to honour him.
His ships, a high-sterned, long-bowed yacht named Heemskerck and a round-sterned vessel of the variety called a flute, the Zeehaean, were of such minuscule tonnage as to be overshadowed by HMS Resolution and HMS Adventure's roughly 400 ton each. These last two, still tiny vessels by modern standards, less than one-third a football field in length, came through the Southern Ocean in 1774 under the overall command of the Yorkshireman James Cook. The Resolution travelled well to the south near the Antarctic ice mass, and rendezvoused with Adventure at the islands Tasman had named New Zealand. Then in 1776, the Resolution and the HMS Discovery, again under Cook, could have been seen in these waters. And that was all.
What were these eleven ships that in 1788 followed the path of Cook and Tasman to the southern capes of Van Diemen's Land? One might expect them to be full of Georgian conquistadors, or a task force of scientists to suit the enlightened age. If not that, then they must have carried robust dissenters from the political or religious establishment of their day.
The startling fact was they carried prisoners, and the guardians of prisoners. They were the degraded of Britain's overstretched penal system, and the obscure guardians of the degraded. Any concepts of commerce and science on these ships were secondary to the ordained penal purpose. Few aboard had commercial capacities, though a number of the gentlemen were part-time scientists. Their destination was to be not a home of the chosen, or even a chosen home, but a place imposed by authority and devised specifically with its remoteness in mind. The chief order of business for all of them, prisoners and guardians, was to apply themselves to a unique penal experiment.