In the late eighteenth century, with the British prisons so full that huge old ships, known as hulks, had been floated out on to the Thames to house thousands of felons from murderers to thieves, the English government decided to send out a number of seaworthy ships to explore that huge unknown land which had recently been discovered – Terra Nullius, 'empty land' - Australia. The continent would be used to house the convicts in much the same way that parts of America and Africa had been used before. Thomas Keneally's A Commonwealth of Thieves recounts the first four years of this colonial expirement, from Governor Phillips' arrival in 1788 to the colony's hopeful foundation of commerce, agriculture and law courts of 1792. Subtitled 'The Improbable Birth of Australia,' the work outlines the huge problems facing the First Fleet upon arrival in what they thought were the uninhabited meadows of Captain Cook's letters but in actuality was a somewhat barren, virtually inhospitable stretch of land that was nonetheless occupied by the native tribe 'Eora'.
The difficulties involved with colonizing Australia were vast. The land was very different from what the English were used to – it resembled neither their own homeland or that of Europe, nor did methods used for cultivating crops and livestock successfully in America or Africa succeed. The implements and methods brought by the colonizers were not very useful, and because the majority of the people on the First Fleet were unskilled or oddly skilled convicts and not freemen – with the talents of the convicts ranging from artificial flower makers to master forgers and lock-pickers – the initial attempt to form a self-sufficient colony was one unlikely to succeed. However, from the British point of view, the dumping ground that was Australia was a success because it allowed the government a faraway place to send all of their unwanted. The Second Fleet came with many more convicts, from the 'floating brothel' of Lady Juliana to the ragged assemblage of murderers and thieves that made up the other ships. Here, the need for food had not been correctly estimated, which placed further pressure on an already fragile colony. Governor Arthur Phillips, the fair, democratically-minded man placed in charge of the colony, was assailed on all sides by thieving officers and convicts, by violent men and women, by loose women causing trouble among the mostly male population, by food rotting, by scurvy, by dissent among his own officer's ranks, by neglect from the British government, and last but not least, by the mounting anger of the country's native population. Terra nullius was far from being empty at all, and soon the aboriginal people would make their voices heard.
Keneally's voice is strong, assured and anecdotal, willing to explore the human side of the colonization as much as the military or government aspects. Quotes and excerpts are taken from all layers of society, drawing on the letters, missives, pleas, exhortations and messages of men and women ranging from Governor Phillips himself to the lowly convict who pleads with the Courts in London to set him free. The notes for these quotes are attractively laid out at the end of the work, along with a short index for ease of reference.
The forced conditions of the colony meant that the line between convict and freeman were, by necessity, blurred. Governor Phillips had initially wished to never fuzz the differences between the two groups, but the sheer amount of responsible work that was needed coupled with a short supply of able men, meant that convicts were increasingly relied upon to perform important duties. In some cases this was a success, for example, when John Harris arranged a nightly patrol around the convict area, and to secure the district and the women from theft, rape and disadvantage. John Harris, himself a convict leading a group of convicts, proved so able in his patrols that his men attained status near to that of police, with one person even commenting that 'many streets in London were not so well guarded.' But the blurring of convict and freeman was not without its negatives. Angered that convicts were attaining positions of status, groups of Privates and officers engaged in thievery of their own, blaming complex and well-orchestrated plots on hapless convicts. When they were discovered, Phillips was forced to apply the lash, or even hang the men – a loss he could ill afford.
A strange problem of the writing style used in A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia is that Keneally's believes he has a greater command of metaphor than is actually true. Thus, while describing the first few months of settlement in Norfolk Island by a group of soldiers, sailors and convicts led by Lieutenant King, we are subject to the bizarre statements that 'The lash had made its entry into Norfolk Island like the entry of the serpent into Eden.' This sentence is so incorrect as to be ridiculous, because the 'lash' – the cat-o-nine tails – was deliberately brought by the government to punish thieves and keep the settlement democratic; Keneally is relying more on the power of his metaphor than any accuracy of statement. These literary flights of fancy serve to interrupt rather than enhance the cohesive statement of settlement that Keneally is trying to achieve. Such disruptions are common rather than rare, which is much to the detriment of the text as a whole. Where Keneally is a factual, minutely observant narrator, the work is strong; those places in which he flexes his artistic muscle, not.
Another weakness of the text, again a literary conceit, is Keanneally's reliance on insisting upon a dramatic end to each chapter. A chapter on the introduction of capital punishment and the first attempts at building permanent structures at Sydney Cove will end with a sudden aside to the endemic problem of venereal disease in all levels of the population, concluding that 'so that this too could bring the penal commonwealth to ruin.' Venereal disease was, in the eighteenth century, a remarkably common problem, and one that was far less likely to bring the settlement to ruin as, say, the lack of domesticated animals for labour or the rising problem of food shortages. Keneally uses these dramatic statements to serve as a literary tool to increase awareness of the difficulties facing the colony, which is an admirable goal but a foolish one. The more subdued statements where the total rations for the settlement are outlined, or where the mounting rates of crime are discussed, prove much more effective in building a sense of appreciation for the challenge facing Governor Phillips.
It is happy, then, that the successes of Keneally's work far outweigh the weaknesses. A Commonwealth of Thieves is studded with stories and anecdotes of convicts and their criminal pasts, stories of love between officers and gaoled women, and the reminisces of men high and low. It is difficult not to feel sympathetic toward a ten-year-old boy being sentenced to seven years in a penal colony for stealing ten pence worth of bread, or to commiserate alongside the many women who had to suffer the misfortune of their children dying of starvation, deprivation or drowning.
That the difficulties faced by the colonists were vast is something that is never far from Keneally's mind. Again and again the reader is subjected to further stories of horror, as things go from bad to worse to much worse. But the foundations that Governor Phillips laid were strong enough that, in a little over two hundred years time, Australia’s is a long-independent nature with a strong economy, a bustling population and a vibrant culture. The vicious treatment of the aboriginal people has not yet been properly addressed, with further injustices committed long after the scope of the work, up to and including our current time. But the 'colony' itself is mature, comprised of a people who identify themselves not as convicts or ex-British, but as Australian, proud of their land and proud of what they have achieved. Keneally's work is an excellent examination of the first crucial years of the nation's founding, one that, forgiving its weaknesses, is not afraid to highlight both the positive and negative aspects of the First and Second Fleet.