A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia

Published By: Anchor

Book Category: Non-Fiction, History

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Reviewed by Kristin Grabarek

The author of Schindler’s List brings us his 37th book, a history of the four years during which white Australia was born. Thomas Keneally competes with Robert Hughes’ epic history of Australia’s origin that covers a span of 80 years, chronicling the white settlers as oppressive. But Keneally’s fresh, novelistic history has found its own place in Australian historiography; it scrutinizes a short time period, providing a multifaceted and profound study of the historical characters that birthed Australia.

Midwife to this birth was Great Britain, who sent a captain of her royal navy, Arthur Phillip, to oversee as governor a penal-colony experiment with 759 thieves, prostitutes, and criminal children. The poorly planned experiment could have easily become a disaster, had Phillip not been both authoritative and compassionate. Ultimately, Keneally admits bewilderment as to the true nature of Phillip, the narrative’s potential hero, given his “nature so complex and hidden behind official formality.”

Keneally illuminates the white settlement against the backdrop of the then virtually unknown Aborigines, whose contact with the criminal settlers kept tension high. The useful historiographical theme of dichotomy between two cultures takes shape here, with Keneally’s description of the Aboriginal worldview, and his admission of its impossible incongruence with the intent of the Empire to colonize and cultivate.

Keneally tactfully narrates the clashes between the two discordant populations without romanticizing either, portraying with equal emphasis the contrasting barbarity and decency both groups exhibited. For example, Phillip’s would-be-hero counterpart, Woolaware Bennelong, captured as an Aboriginal translator, assisted the white settlers after his escape, to the point that he was finally disowned by his own people.

Keneally’s tactful tone has its own purpose. Where Hughes’ history did not hesitate to weigh in against the colonial invaders, Keneally sustains his narrative along the middle ground, allowing Australians to realize their heritage as less melodramatic, and oppressive.

With Phillip’s return to England after his term, Australians were left without a founding father-figure. Keneally’s history fills in that gap, with assurances from Keneally that he can make out a positive resemblance between the first governor’s pragmatism and thoroughness, and that of the country today.

Armchair Interviews says: Very well-done history.

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