Jeremy Bentham and the escaped convicts: an exhibition at UCL

By Tim Causer, on 16 June 2014

20140616_110854I’m delighted to announce that a new Bentham-related exhibition has just been installed here at UCL. This is based upon the Memorandoms of the transported convict, James Martin, and tells the story of how he, seven male convicts, one female prisoner, and two infant children, absconded from the recently-founded penal colony of New South Wales on the night of 28 March 1791. Martin and his fellows stole the colony’s six-oared cutter, sailed out of Port Jackson and over the next nine weeks navigated the eastern and northern coastlines of Australia, enduring ferocious storms, privation, and encounters with Aboriginal Australians. They eventually reached their destination of Kupang, West Timor, on 5 June 1791, where they successfully (for a while, at least) passed themselves off as the survivors of a shipwreck. This was an astonishing feat of seamanship and endurance, in surviving this journey of over five thousand kilometres in an open boat.

20140616_110903The exhibition introduces the prisoners and their incredible journey, and discusses Bentham’s interest in convict transportation, and why he was interested in acquiring Martin’s narrative. UCL is incredibly fortunate that the Memorandoms is part of its Special Collections: it is the only first-hand account of this famous escape, and is the only narrative written by a First Fleet convict.

A fully annotated edition of the Memorandoms was published earlier this year, and can be read free of charge online, or downloaded as PDF from UCL Discovery.

The exhibition will run until around mid-August, and can be found in UCL’s South Cloisters, next to Bentham’s auto-icon: simply follow the extracts from the manuscript on the floor to the opposite wall. For directions around the UCL campus, please consult this map.

This work has been generously supported by the UCL Faculty of Laws Research Environment and Impact Fund, for which I am extremely grateful. I would also like to thank the following for their help and assistance in seeing the exhibition to fruition:

  • Joey O’Gorman, the designer of the exhibition
  • Sussanah Chan, Exhibitions Manager, UCL Museums and Public Management
  • Professor Cheryl Thomas, UCL Laws Vice-Dean of Research
  • Nick Booth, Curator, UCL Teaching and Research Collections
  • Tatjana Wingender, UCL Laws
  • Raheel Nabi, UCL Creative Media Services
  • UCL Library Special Collections
  • and my colleagues at the Bentham Project