A Commonwealth of Thieves by Thomas Keneally


The author of Schindler's List and many other books, both fiction and non-fiction, knows how to spin a narrative, making this fact-filled account of the first four years of the British in Australia a good tale.

He tells us about the changes in land use called enclosure that resulted in a large number of villagers in Britain moving to cities where they turned to crime to survive. The prison population grew and the British government hit upon the idea of transporting convicts to colonies. When the American colonies were no longer available, a fleet was organized to transport convicts to Australia under the leadership of Arthur Phillip.  We hear the dispassionately told, but nevertheless horrifying descriptions of conditions of the convicts as they lived in the prisons and eventually in hulks of old ships moored on the Thames, and finally their transportation to the other side of the world. Keneally brings the events to life by describing individuals.

Trying to give a thorough description of this book is overwhelming, given its scope and great detail, so I will hit a few points I want to try to keep in mind.

According to Keneally the first natives of Australia crossed from the Asian district called Wallacea between 60,000 and 18,000 years ago. The sea levels were lower and there was a land bridge between Australia and New Guinea, forming the Pleistocene era continent of Sahul. Bill Bryson's take of this question in his fun book In a Sunburned Country was mystification. 

Keneally says that 750,000 people lived in Australia when the British arrived in 1788, but I wonder about that number. How could they possibly know that? At any rate, the number was distressingly diminished by the smallpox epidemic that raged not long after that. Although many of the convicts had smallpox scars, no one aboard the ships had an active case during the voyage or after they arrived. It remains a mystery how this disease survived the voyage and was transmitted to the natives.

I was curious to see what Keneally wrote about William Dawes, an astronomer who wrote a dictionary of the Eora language, in addition to setting up instruments on what is now Dawes Point. His reluctance to participate in the retaliation against the natives for killing a convict was a part of Kate Grenville's novel The Lieutenant. He left Australia and worked the rest of his life for the abolition of slavery.

The book is available in the public library, UVa library, Amazon and as an audiobook.

Thomas Keneally, A Commonwealth of Thieves, Doubleday, 2006, 385 pages (I listened to the audiobook version).



  • I find Thomas Kenneally a solid writer of historical fiction. He does the research. And the early history of Australia is interesting.

  • His research was certainly in evidence here, yet he was good at creating a lively tale. And of course you’re right, Australian history makes for a good story.


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