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A Commonwealth of Thieves

February 11, 2007

Fine book by Thomas Keneally, whom I hadn’t heard of but is a prolific Australian author (dozens of books including Schindler’s List and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith).

I had wanted a history of Australia, which this really isn’t. It just covers the initial European settlement, 1788-1792, with quite a bit of before & after context. I knew that Australia was initially settled by convicts sentenced to “transportation,” generally an alternative to the death penalty but also a way of solving prison overcrowding in Britain. The overcrowding was largely due to the enclosures, which created a mass of poor landless many of whom turned to crime. Initially, prisoners were “transported” to the American Colonies, where they became indentured servants (and, if they had affluent friends, could buy the freedom immediately).

After the American Revolution, there were attempts to send prisoners to Canada, and eventually most were just put on hulks in British harbors, where conditions were terrible. Australia having been discovered just a few years earlier, it was decided to transport prisoners there. Of course ship crews and military had to go along. Once landed, they had to deal with the existing population of aboriginal people.

Apparently most of the convicts had been found guilty of either of minor crimes (such as might lead to probation today), or crimes due to their poverty.

Separation of prisoners from the nonprisoners was of course much less than in England (or probably anywhere else). In fact, when it was eventually found necessary ot have a “night patrol”, (the closest thing to a police force at that time), it was staffed by prisoners. And when a locksmith was required, it was a prisoner who had the needed skill.

Arthur Phillip, a Navy Captain, was Governor General and seems to have done a superb job under the circumstances, working in virtually complete isolation from his government in Britain. (When the initial fleet of ships departed back to Britain, they took the sentencing records, so among Phillip’s difficulties was that he had to rely on the convicts to tell him when their sentences expired.)

I am not going to write a proper review of this book, but I recommend it for those interested in the subject. As for learning about the history of Australia, I am turning to a very different work, John C. Weaver’s The Great Land Rush & the Making of the Modern World. Australia is just one of the case studies Weaver uses. I’ve just started and shall plow thru it (unfortunately it’s in an academic style that would benefit from Drake-i-zation) but it’s a serious analysis of an important topic. Thanks to Bill Batt for recommending it.

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