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A Commonwealth of Thieves; The Improbable Birth of Australia

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Name:A Commonwealth of Thieves; The Improbable Birth of Australia

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Last Updated: 2014-11-19 19:21:14 (Update Now)

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General Information
Title............: A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia
Author...........: Thomas Keneally
Read By..........: Simon Vance
Genre............: History
Publisher........: Tantor Media; Unabridged edition (November 1, 2006)
Language.........: English

Original Media Information
Media............: 10 CDs
Condition........: Very Good

File Information
Number of MP3s...: 10
Total Duration...: 12 hours 28 minutes
Total MP3 Size...: 418 MB
Ripped by........: deandominic
Ripper...........: Exact Audio Copy
Encoder..........: LAME 3.98
Encoder Settings.: ABR 80 kbit/s 44100 Hz Mono
ID3 Tags.........: v1.1, v2.3 (includes embedded album art)

Book Description

NY TImes Sunday Book Review

It was the success of the American Revolution that helped seal Australia’s fate. Since the early 1600’s, Britain had been keeping its prison population under control by sending convicts across the Atlantic, where their labor was sold to settlers for plantation work. But rebellion in the North American colonies, and their increasing preference for African slaves, shut off the spigot, leaving His Majesty’s government with more felons than it had prisons to hold them. Hundreds of inmates were moved offshore, to the hulks of old warships, while officials scoured the globe for a more permanent solution: Gibraltar was considered. So was Africa. Finally, in 1786, Whitehall plumped for Australia.

Transporting shiploads of prisoners to that “preposterously distant coast,” as Thomas Keneally describes it in “A Commonwealth of Thieves,” his potent study of Australia’s early colonization, would be the modern equivalent of “sending a shoplifter to some biosphere on another planet.” Most of the more than 700 convicts — men, women and, yes, children — aboard the first fleet of 11 ships were guilty of nothing more than petty theft, and New South Wales, as it was then known, was so remote and uncharted as to be simply unimaginable.

In his more than 40 years as an author, the Australian-born Keneally has made a specialty of writing about history, both in fiction (“The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” and “Schindler’s List,” for example) and in popular nonfiction (notably “American Scoundrel,” his biography of the Civil War general Dan Sickles, and “The Great Shame,” about the Irish diaspora). Here, he turns his novelist’s eye to the first four years of white Australia, folding the dreary facts and figures into the more engaging elements of character and narrative.

The trouble with the characters of the first fleet is that they are either too obscure to be fleshed out or too dull to play the lead. The convicted thieves, with their derisory laundry lists of spoils (Sarah Bellamy: “one linen purse, value tuppence, as well as 15 pounds 15 shillings”; Elizabeth Hippesley: “a silver watch chain and other goods”), are impossible to get to know since so little information about them has survived; the Aborigines, meanwhile, were so utterly unfamiliar to the colonists that even the writings of dedicated journal keepers like Captains Watkin Tench and David Collins could not breach the “barrier of racial incomprehension”; and as for one of the would-be heroes of this account, the first governor, Arthur Phillip, he seems to leave the master storyteller at a loss, with his “nature so complex and hidden behind official formality ... it is hard to find the quivering human within.”

Australians do sometimes deride their history as boring, as lacking larger-than-life figures to honor or revolutions to pore over. But they also fight about it endlessly. The history wars, as these long-running disputes are known, are waged primarily between what one historian called the patriotic, or “three cheers,” outlook and the “black armband” view (described by Prime Minister John Howard as reflecting the belief that Australia’s story is little more than one of “imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination”). This battle is another obstacle that looms over Keneally’s book, particularly when set alongside the feistier and heftier rendering in “The Fatal Shore” (1987), by Robert Hughes, a fellow Australian. Where Keneally delicately tiptoes down the middle, avoiding loaded language, Hughes wades in, unafraid to condemn the “white invasion” or to assail his homeland for its historical amnesia and “cultural cringe.” Where Keneally praises Phillip for insisting there be “no slavery in a free land,” Hughes sees as “apartheid” a dictate in the same document that convicts must never mix with other settlers even after their sentences have expired.

Keneally, who has said he enjoyed “the brio” of Hughes’s book, told an interviewer last year he thought he could tell the story in a new way that took it beyond “black armband” divisions and could help Australians understand their heritage, “how we began ... how we’ve continued.” (One of his own forebears was an Irish political prisoner sent to Australia in 1868 on the very last convict ship.) In these aims, Keneally has succeeded, even if his sober telling doesn’t have Hughes’s wallop. Like Hughes, he begins with a description of the cruelties of Georgian England, where crimes against property were often treated more harshly than murder and where James Boswell could stop by the public execution of 19 criminals “without its spoiling his appetite.” Then come the horrors of the convict ships, the starvation conditions suffered by the young colony and the tragedy of the meeting of two mutually impenetrable civilizations.

That last episode is perhaps the most affecting, and Keneally recounts it with great sensitivity. The ancestors of the people Phillip met in Sydney Cove had arrived on the Australian continent perhaps as many as 60,000 years earlier; this was a truly ancient race of nomadic hunter-gatherers for whom the commonwealth of British thieves could only be “a catastrophe.” But it is among the Aborigines that we meet the other candidate for hero of this story, Woolawarre Bennelong, a young man who was kidnapped by Phillip’s men in hopes of using him as a cultural and linguistic translator. Though Bennelong eventually escaped, he maintained contact with Phillip, who had a brick house built for him on what would become known as Bennelong Point (the site of the Sydney Opera House). Bennelong visited England in 1793, where he was presented at George III’s court. After two years, he returned home, only to find that he was accepted by neither the colonial administration nor his own people. On his death in 1813, The Sydney Gazette noted that “his voyage to and benevolent treatment in Britain produced no change whatever in his manners and inclinations, which were naturally barbarous and ferocious.”

Phillip, too, went home, to a relative obscurity, his departure depriving white Australian history of a founding father figure. He was indeed no Washington or Jefferson, but Keneally thinks he sees some of Phillip’s DNA in 21st-century Australia, a spirit that is “pragmatic yet thorough, caught between sparks of both authority and compassion.”

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