The Far Side of the World

The arrival of the first prisoners at the Botany Bay penal colony
The arrival of the first prisoners at the Botany Bay penal colony (National Library Of Australia, Canberra, Australia / The Bridgeman Art Library)
Reviewed by Wendy Smith
Sunday, October 29, 2006


The Improbable Birth of Australia

By Thomas Keneally

Doubleday/Nan A. Talese. 385 pp. $26.95

T wenty years after The Fatal Shore was first published, Robert Hughes's magisterial history of Australia remains the book to beat for anyone attempting to write about the country's creation from a series of English convict transports. Thomas Keneally takes a more novelistic approach than Hughes did -- a sensible decision, since this Australian writer is best known for such fiction as Schindler's List and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith . While Hughes covered the entire 80-year period of transportation, Keneally focuses on scarcely five years, from the 1787 departure of the First Fleet bearing 759 people condemned to serve out their sentences in Australia, through the return to England of the penal colony's first governor, Arthur Phillip, in 1792. He offers close-up portraits of white settlers suddenly set down in a landscape that was as foreign to them as the moon, and of native people baffled by the sudden invasion of their homeland by weird strangers with incomprehensible motives.

Phillip stands at the center of Keneally's chronicle. A captain in the Royal Navy, he was a solid officer who proved to be a calm, capable administrator of England's "unprecedented penal and society-making experiment." To put it mildly, the experiment had been poorly planned. Shipping off thieves, forgers and prostitutes to plant crops on land that only six European ships had ever visited, Keneally dryly notes, "was the equivalent of sending a shoplifter to some biosphere on another planet." And Botany Bay, where the First Fleet landed in January 1788, was not at all as it had been described by previous observers. Aboriginal hunter-gatherers roamed in comfort through its bushland, but it was totally unsuitable for farming.

This could have been a recipe for starvation and disaster, particularly since the colony was woefully under-provisioned. In addition, Phillip was saddled with a hostile subordinate, Lt. Gov. Robert Ross, and with resentful convicts who claimed their sentences had been served and wanted their own land to cultivate. Nor were the natives friendly: Members of the coastal Eora clans greeted the invaders with the words, "Get out! Begone!" Under these unpromising conditions, it's astonishing that the second convict transport didn't find only the bodily remains of its predecessors. Instead, Phillip moved to the more hospitable Sydney Cove, set everyone to work as quickly as possible, and established edgy but ongoing contact with the Aborigines. He enforced discipline with harsh punishments, including hanging for stealing food.

Weaving together many individual stories, Keneally paints an impressionistic picture of a society in the making. Phillip gained grudging respect by treating convicts and soldiers equally before the law; a private got 200 lashes for assaulting a convict woman who had been his lover. Yet nothing the governor did could prevent an interracial tragedy from unfolding at Sydney Cove; the book's strongest element is the author's detailed portrait of the Aboriginal worldview and its utter incompatibility with the Europeans' intent to settle and cultivate their land. But Phillip genuinely liked the native people and strove to maintain communication with them, albeit by kidnapping Aborigines and forcing them to live with the whites so they could learn English and convey the colony's needs to their fellows.

In a large cast of characters, the most poignant is Woolawarre Bennelong, who developed a close relationship with Phillip. He became an uneasy intermediary, striving to please his new white associates while maintaining the ways of his people. When the Eora decided that Phillip must answer for the convicts who had stolen their food and weapons, Bennelong was the reluctant facilitator. He arranged the meeting at which an Eora wise man threw a spear through Phillip's shoulder as a deliberately non-fatal punishment. The governor understood none of this, of course, but he ascribed the incident to panic and forgave the Eora. When Phillip sailed home to England, Bennelong went with him, met King George III and discovered on his return that he was mistrusted both by Sydney Cove's new administrators and by his own people. He sank into alcoholism and died in 1813.

Keneally's evocative narrative is at times a bit too novelistic. It follows events virtually day-by-day but doesn't provide much context for them, wandering from anecdote to anecdote without a very clear sense of direction. The author's comment that Phillip's "spirit, pragmatic and thorough, is still visible in Australia today" is as close to a summing-up as we get. With its intimate frame of reference and conversational tone, this might have worked better as an actual novel along the lines of The Playmaker , Keneally's delightful fictional replay of an incident referred to in passing here. Nonetheless, anyone interested in the history of Australia, or in the remarkable adventures of men and women struggling to survive in extreme circumstances, will find much to enjoy in A Commonwealth of Thieves . ยท

Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

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