Reviewed by Mary McWay Seaman, Celtic Connection, May, 2007
A full sensory excursion to the beginnings of the British penal colony in New South Wales awaits in Thomas Keneally’s A COMMONWEALTH OF THIEVES: THE IMPROBABLE BIRTH OF AUSTRALIA. The book also offers an escorted tour through the mean streets of late 18th-century England and its barbarous prisons. This is not one of those sweeping overviews of a country’s entire history; the book’s power lies in the coverage of the colony’s founding by British and Irish settlers during a brief span from the 1780s to the early 1800s. Despite the Enlightenment’s brilliant minds (Samuel Johnson, James Boswell et al.) English society was still short on mercy, brotherhood and inclusiveness. Poverty and crime had increased dramatically in London when “enclosure,” a land reorganization that barred peasants from the use of formerly common fields, was instituted throughout the countryside. Thousands of rural folks were forced off the land and into urban lives of crime. Death sentences were routinely meted out for larceny, women were burned at the stake, and children as young as nine were incarcerated for petty theft. The author marches readers briskly across the slimy grounds of London’s infamous Newgate Prison. In those days lockups were essentially franchise businesses run by subcontractors who charged inmates according to levels of accommodation. For the poor and insane, they were cold, foul, lice-ridden, rat-infested, overcrowded hellholes. Keneally found that “Doctors often refused to enter the prison for fear their own health would suffer. Yet every day, ordinary people came to visit or sightsee, as we might now visit a zoo.” Unspeakable congestion led to the confinement of some prisoners on ships, or hulks, moored on the Thames, at Portsmouth and Plymouth. These vessels, notorious for epidemics and savagery, housed convicts for months and even years, and citizens wanted them out. American destinations were closed after the War of Independence, so officials sent them to Australia, launching another colonial experiment to test the merits of plantation on human reform, to check for additional resources as the slave trade was winding down, and to increase trade with China, India and Southeast Asia. Dumping other undesirables, especially Irish captives from the failed Rebellion of 1798 and sundry Scottish separatists, offered an additional benefit. Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Cornish names jump off the pages; McCabe, McCormick, McEntire, Crowley, Hart, Leary, Sullivan, Kerwin, Martin, Rositer, Mullens, Burns, Kelly, Fitzgerald, Ryan, Barrett, Foley, Corbett, Considen, Dempsey, Allen, Balmain, Ramsay, Johnston, Campbell, McClennan, Nicol, Macarthur, Bryant, Broad, King, Ruse and Veal are just a few. It’s possible that the prospect of back-to-nature, survival-type country living appealed to some refugees, though few would have been able to envision the coming hardships that would equal or exceed their present sorrows. Keneallys narrative captures the substance of the era by letting scores of people tell their own stories; the richness of this commanding account springs from on-the-ground reporting by all classes of British, Irish and native Australian players. The able naval commander Arthur Phillip was selected to lead the first of three armadas to Botany Bay, although this site was abandoned in favor of Sydney Cove, a more hospitable harbor to the north. Readers come to know Phillip well, as Keneally’s masterful character depiction is one of the most thorough and impressive portrayals I have read. The decent, conscientious realist from humble origins did his best to mitigate the vile conditions on board the claustrophobic, contagion-soaked hulks only to see biology trump good intentions as the travelers suffered protein and vitamin deficiencies. Typhus ravaged crew and captives alike, and the colonists, like others throughout history, often failed to enquire about local food sources, weather conditions and herbal remedies from the natives. Dwindling supplies of rice quivered with bugs, and shortages of pea porridge (lack of vitamin B) led to chronic infections. The absence of fresh fruits and vegetables (lack of vitamin C) propelled the sores, debility, and derangement of scurvy, the sailors’ ancient curse. The ragged population required food and clothing (especially shoes) from supply ships for several years and faced famine between deliveries. Poisonous deliveries from Europe deposited on the indigenous population included smallpox, viruses and venereal infections. The author’s accounts of encounters between natives and newcomers comprise a compelling saga in itself. Some of Keneally’s finest work exhibits enduring human traits – virtues and iniquities alike – rendered through heroic drama and comical peccadilloes. His genius at conjuring the chaos of the early Sydney camps creates a stunning testimony. By 1800 there were several thousand colonists living in the area, and the roots of New South Wales took hold through land grants that solidified small towns, farms and fisheries with the bounties of private enterprise. A COMMONWEALTH OF THIEVES: THE IMPROBABLE BIRTH OF AUSTRALIA, vibrates with a buoyant, anecdotal style that mixes up a delicious gumbo of history, politics, travel, geography, anthropology and sociology. Many nations become known for a particular personality; we now have it on good authority that Australia’s fine reputation for limitless camaraderie, outdoorsy lifestyles, and that indefinable, spirited love of adventure is the sparkling legacy of forebears who found, at last, a glad new morning.

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