Strangers in a strange land

Australia had no more of its share of burglars and desperadoes than other poor countries.

commonwealth of thieves  (photo credit: )
commonwealth of thieves
(photo credit: )
A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia By Thomas Keneally Nan A. Talese 400 pages;$26.95 Imagine your feelings on seeing an alien spacecraft land in your street. Nothing about it is familiar to you. Its occupants, dressed in unfamiliar materials and speaking a language that in no way resembles yours, nevertheless look strangely human and make gestures indicating that they are not hostile. Now imagine that you are one of the Eroa-speaking tribes living on the shores of eastern Australia in the 18th century. You have just sighted three ships sailing into your bay, the first you have ever seen. The sight is like a dream, a bad dream. How men could fashion such huge canoes and weave such uniforms is beyond imagining. Ashore, the aliens are seen to obey a leader and carry weapons that can kill animals or men at a distance. And they are clearly divided into classes: leader, sub-leaders, warriors in special dress, sailors who row their canoes and crowds of poorly dressed and half-starved men and women, an underclass of non-warrior status who survived the voyage in chains. All the aborigines want of the newcomers from another dreamtime is that they get off their sacred tribal land and go away. But the aliens do not leave. Though many starve, sicken and die, hundreds more are landed from subsequent fleets of ships. They have come to stay. Indeed, they cannot leave. The transportation of criminals to the unknown shores of New South Wales was originally planned to relieve congestion in England's floating jails, the Hulks. These old, dismasted and rotting vessels were rife with disease and depravity, a state of affairs in which only the strong and ruthless survived. Then came the idea to use convicts, particularly the younger ones, to establish a new colony that would enforce Britain's claim to Terra Australis. And so it came to pass. An instant society was born. In it, the convicts were not outcasts. They were the new society. Though many were to die of illness and starvation, some became wealthy ranchers and landowners, while others became entrepreneurs and even policemen. As Thomas Keneally points out in his new book, many, if not most of the convicts were not hardened criminals. Many were victims of hunger who had stolen little more than a silk handkerchief, or who had landed a salmon and been sentenced under the new and ever-more-severe laws against poaching. Some had been sentenced to the gallows for petty theft and the more attractive teenagers among them had escaped the noose by accepting transportation. The cruel and terrible story of Australia's settlement was told two decades ago by critic Robert Hughes in The Fatal Shore. Keneally's account, limited to the first two years, is milchig by comparison. It is based on eyewitness memoirs, formal reports and contemporary correspondence; and by an understandable osmosis, sometimes falls into the language of the times. The bibliography is large. (The Fatal Shore appears under "Secondary Sources"). Every third- and fourth-grade Australian schoolchild of my day was taught the source of the names of places and streets in which we lived. Captain James Cook was at the top of the list, followed by the likes of Matthew Flinders, the first navigator to circumnavigate Australia and confirm that it was a continental island; Port Phillip, the convict settlement that grew into the city named for Lord Melbourne, honored Arthur Phillip, the first governor of the settlement at Sydney Cove, a site named for Home Office secretary Viscount Sydney. Governor Phillip was the son of Jacob Phillip of Frankfurt, possibly a Jew. The Nepean Highway, which runs from Melbourne to Portsea down the entire east coast of Port Phillip Bay, passing all the army camps in which I was trained, is named for Home Office undersecretary Evan Nepean (and possibly his younger brother Captain Nicholas Nepean of the New South Wales Corps). Collins Street, Melbourne's main downtown drag, is named for an intrepid captain of the NSW Corps, who, among other things, wounded and captured a resistance leader, Pemulwuy, who had stalked and killed a white hunter. One of the most fascinating parts of Keneally's account is a description of the warm but difficult relations between Arthur Phillip and a prominent aborigine named Bennelong, who learned to speak English. Phillip, though he had once been run through with a spear during a muddled encounter, was an enlightened man who charged his colony to treat the aborigines with respect; he delighted in entertaining the often hostile Bennelong in his home. Bennelong enjoyed the talks, the food and especially the drink. He and a friend were taken to London but were dismayed by the climate and soon returned to their homeland and their women. Bennelong was a character, a lothario who was speared in the thigh by his wife for messing with an attractive teenager. Spearings expressed not only anger but a way of exacting honor via revenge. They were not meant to kill. The spear that emerged from Phillip's torso was not of the kind that could not be extracted. Phillip understood that he was treading someone else's land, but he knew there was no going back. The aborigines were not all hostile, but remained deeply suspicious of the Brits. They were soon to be decimated by smallpox. Despite battles with malnutrition and poor soil, the settlers gradually got the better of their situation. A number were brickmakers and carpenters. The best shots among them were given weapons to hunt birds and kangaroos. Everyone subsisted on official rations; Phillip himself set an example by confining himself to the same rations as those issued to the convicts. The key product was flour, which always arrived in the nick of time as more transports arrived. Subsequently, supply vessels were dispatched to the Indies. Night raids on food stores were rife. One transportee, John Harris, a Cockney Jew of impressive mien and credentials, proposed a night watch and was made its commander. He was a success. Thus convicts became police. Yes, there were a number of Jews among the first convicts to land. Esther Abrahams, a clever Cockney teenager, lost two lovers to illness before being taken up by a major of marines who later married her. The couple became wealthy, farming and grazing cattle west of the Parramatta. Four decades later they were buried in a family vault designed by a convict architect. James Larra, yet another Cockney Jew, eventually opened the first bar and grill in New South Wales and prospered. Keneally's account draws on a large number of contemporary journals and diaries. It is peppered with extraordinary characters, from a famous pickpocket to a well-born highwayman. The concluding chapter sums up what eventually happened to those who survived. Only one group led by a husband and wife made a successful escape, reaching Batavia (now Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies. Their loose talk led to their eventual arrest. This book is a great read, but I object to its title. Australia was never a commonwealth of thieves. It had no more of its share of burglars and desperadoes than other poor countries. It did have a corrupt "army." After Phillip left, officers of the New South Wales Corps took over the illegal stills and became known as the "Rum Corps." The corps later aided graziers to drive the aborigines off their lands, killing those that resisted. Australia has had a great many ups and downs, but it has prospered and offers its citizens a generally relaxed way of life. If you are white, that is. Poor Bennelong saw clearly what would happen to his people.