New material – Panopticon versus New South Wales

By Tim Causer, on 20 April 2012

As mentioned in today’s progress update, 864 images-worth of material from Box 116 has been uploaded to the website for transcribing. This contains some very important material, mainly written around 1802, which relates to his views on the then recently-founded convict colony of New South Wales. Essentially, Bentham’s purpose was to condemn the colony, as transportation had emerged as the main alternative to the construction of penitentiaries, and specifically the Panopticon.

One of the works on which these manuscripts are based, Panopticon versus New South Wales, is a passionate assault on the supposed ‘failures’ of colony: that the society was immoral; that transported convicts were not reformed; that transportation was unjust and borderline illegal; and that the convict system was inefficient and hugely expensive. Set against this was a picture of Bentham’s efficient, cheap, and reformatory Panopticon. However, Bentham made a rather tendentious use of evidence in making his case, exaggerating matters and ignoring facts which did not fit his theory.

View of the Settlement on Sydney Cove, Port Jackson 20th August, 1788, held by the State Library of Victoria (http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/platebk/gid/slv-pic-aac04897/1/pb000463)

A second work arising from the material was A Plea for the Constitution, also known as The True Bastile, which was written circa 1803 but not published until 1812. Bentham now argued that since the Governors of New South Wales had not been given powers to make binding local regulations by Parliament, then they had not legal power to enforce such rules, or punish people for transgressing. Bentham recognised the incendiary nature of this argument, noting in August 1802 that were ‘I to publish [it] now, before Parliament is in readiness to do any thing, the great probability is that the Colony would be in a flame’. However, there is evidence that Bentham supplied a copy to David Collins, then in England but who was soon to depart again for the Antipodes, and that the arguments in A Plea for the Constitution played their part in the rationale for the bloodless overthrow of Governor William Bligh of New South Wales.

As a historian of colonial Australia, this material is very exciting – once transcribed, it will be possible to discern how Bentham developed his case against New South Wales, and formulated and corralled his evidence. It will also contribute to one of the more fertile historiographical trends in the history of convict transportation, namely the anti-transportation campaigns of the 1840s and 1850s; recent work in this area includes Babette Smith’s important Australia’s Birthstain, and a forthcoming discussion forum in the Journal of Australian Colonial History.

Panopticon versus New South Wales had no impact on the policy of transportation at the time of its publication—more and more convicts were transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, especially from 1816. But the ideas it contained were discussed at length during the following decades, and they were at the centre of the great show-trial of the convict system, the 1837-1838 Select Committee on Transportation, chaired by the then 27 year-old Radical MP, Sir William Molesworth. He described Bentham as one of England’s ‘greatest and most original thinkers’, used Bentham’s arguments in his speeches, and followed Bentham’s tendentious methods when making his own investigation into transportation. Incidentally, according to the historian John Ritchie, it was ‘a jibe while [Molesworth] was at University that he not only admired Bentham but also understood him’.

We hope you enjoy consulting and transcribing this material! Do let us know if you have any questions.