Archive for the 'Writings on Australia' Category

Memorandoms by James Martin – astonishing convict narrative now available in Open Access!

By Louise Seaward, on 7 July 2017

Our latest update comes from Dr Tim Causer, the former coordinator of Transcribe Bentham who is now working on Bentham’s writings on Australia.  Dr Causer has recently edited a new edition of ‘Memorandoms by James Martin’, a convict’s first-hand account of a daring escape from a penal colony in Australia in 1791. The only known copy of the manuscript was acquired by Bentham and is now held in UCL Special Collections.


‘Those of us researching the history of convict transportation to Australia are extraordinarily fortunate in terms of resources, as some of the most important have, for several years, been available digitally on an open-access basis. For instance, we can search colonial-era newspapers in the National Library of Australia’s Trove, or consult the Tasmanian convict records, a body of material unique in its detail about the tens of thousands of ordinary people transported to Van Diemen’s Land.

As a callow undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen, making a first foray into Australian history fourteen years ago, such resources were the stuff of dreams. The university library’s holdings on Australian history were largely limited to landmark secondary texts such as Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958) and A. G. L. Shaw’s Convicts and the Colonies (1966). The most recent work we had to hand was almost two decades old: Robert Hughes’s blockbuster, The Fatal Shore (1986). Hughes’s brilliant, terrible book is beautifully written, but is ultimately frequently misleading. But a major strength of The Fatal Shore’s was its use of convict narratives, giving it an immediacy rare in many earlier histories which relied heavily upon parliamentary papers and official correspondence.

Convict narratives fall into two main types. The first, and most common, are those published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during or around the period in which convicts were transported to the Antipodes. For instance, two of the most well-known are Martin Cash’s The Bushranger of Van Diemen’s Land (1870) and Mark Jeffrey’s A Burglar’s Life (1893), both of which were ghost-written by the former convict James Lester Burke.

Of course, published narratives such as these present issues of interpretation. How much of Cash’s autobiography is authentically his voice, and how much is that of Burke? Ghost-writers often sanitised their subject’s life into a redemption parable, walking the fine line between titillation while still seeking to attract a respectable audience. Those narratives written by the few transported for political offences—male, middle-class, well-educated authors—are unrepresentative of the experiences of the majority of convicts. There is also a racial and gender imbalance, with the overwhelming majority of narratives dealing with the lives of white convict men—Reverend James Cameron’s partly-fictionalised biography of the Spanish transportee, Adelaide de Thoreza, is a rare exception.

The second type of narrative exists only in manuscript. They are often more exciting to deal with: they were not written for publication, do not have to meet the conventions of any genre, and are often more revealing, explicit, and subversive. For instance, the Irish convict Laurence Frayne’s narrative is a graphic account of his punishment and contains a sustained character assassination of James Morisset, a commandant at the Norfolk Island penal station during the 1830s, which would never have been fit to print.

Memorandoms by James Martin is one such unpublished manuscript which, thanks to UCL Press, is now available in open-access for the first time. The Memorandoms tells the story of the most famous of all escapes from Australia by transported convicts, that led by William and Mary Bryant. On the night 28 March 1791 the Bryants with their two infant children, James Martin, and six other male convicts stole a fishing boat and sailed out of Sydney Harbour and out into the Pacific. They reached Kupang in Timor on 8 June, though were subsequently identified as escaped convicts and the survivors were shipped back to England to face trial—where James Boswell lobbied the government for their release.


First page of Memorandoms by James Martin, UCL Special Collections, Bentham Papers, Box CLXIX, fo. 179


Final page of Memorandoms by James Martin, UCL Special Collections, Bentham Papers, Box CLXIX, fo. 201

The group’s 69-day, 3,000-mile journey has been the subject of two televisions series, poetry, novels, and innumerable history books, with a focus on Mary Bryant. Yet the modern historical accounts are frequently unsatisfactory and derivative; what then, the reader might wonder, could be said about this story that has not been said so many times before?

Quite a bit, it turns out. Memorandoms by James Martin is the only extant first-hand account of the escape, and it provides a fresh perspective to this often formulaically-told tale. Despite the Memorandoms being spare and prosaic, it provides a sense of the hardship of the journey, the terror of those in the boat as it is pummelled by storms and churning seas, and of the party’s fascination and fear in their encounters with Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. The Memorandoms also strikingly reveals just how far some modern historians have departed from the historical record when telling the story.

Memorandoms by James Martin is also important in a second sense: it is the only known narrative written by a member of the first cohort of convicts sent to New South Wales with the First Fleet 1788. The Memorandoms was acquired at some point by one of Britain’s great philosophers, Jeremy Bentham, one of the first and most influential critics of transportation to Australia. The vast Bentham archive is, of course, held in UCL’s Special Collections, and the Memorandoms is but one of the many jewels in the College’s collections.

Now, thanks to UCL Press, the Memorandoms manuscripts are available for the first time, and for free; readers can now access the original narrative for themselves, rather than mediated by some rather dubious historical accounts. The colour reproductions bring the document to life in a way which would not otherwise be captured by publishing a transcript, and I am inordinately grateful to UCL Press for bringing the Memorandoms out in this way. My younger self in Aberdeen would have been thrilled to have had a resource like this to hand, and I hope that those who today may not have ready access to unpublished narratives like the Memorandoms will be equally pleased.’

‘Position not form’: a square panopticon prison?

By Tim Causer, on 10 November 2016

We generally assume that Bentham’s panopticon prison, had it been constructed, would have been a circular building. This is, of course, a wholly fair and unsurprising assumption given the numerous plans and drawings which Bentham had prepared when lobbying the government, and the lengthy descriptions of the proposed building in his writings. However, a letter written in 1803 might suggest that Bentham did not consider the shape of the building all that important, and even recognised that its circular nature may have been counterproductive.


UC 119, f. 120: plan of the panopticon prison

Plan of the panopticon prison, Bentham Papers box 119, fo. 120. UCL Special Collections.

During either late December 1802 or early January 1803, Bentham had sent the First and Second Letters to Lord Pelham (i.e. a part of Bentham’s critique of convict transportation, Panopticon versus New South Wales) to David Collins, the former Judge-Advocate of the colony. Bentham had, of course, relied heavily upon Collins’s Account of the English Colony in New South Wales in his own writings about the colony and transportation. Collins had returned to England in 1796, and on 4 January 1803 was commissioned as lieutenant-governor of a proposed new settlement at Port Phillip (in modern-day Victoria).

On 27 January Bentham invited Collins to dinner, where he would also meet ‘My friend Charles Bunbury who like you and me is one of the fancy (I mean not the Pidgeon fancy but the Convict fancy)’. Collins had evidently expressed an in interest in constructing a prison in the new settlement under his command, and Bentham suggested if he was serious then ‘I flatter myself that by means of my Brother and the professional assistance he has at his command’ he could provide Collins with draughts of the panopticon, which would be more helpful than the general outline contained in his book Panopticon; or the Inspection House.

Bentham did indeed approach his brother Samuel, then Inspector-General of Naval Works, on the matter on 22 February. He noted that he had dined with Collins on three occasions, who had proven ‘very good par with me’. Jeremy hoped that Samuel might provide Collins with draughts, as with his book ‘and a little νους [nous], he might be able to do without a draught; but the νους, I fear, is wanting.’

The draughts do not appear to have been prepared by the time Collins, on 4 April, wrote to Bentham ‘in lieu of a personal Farewell’. He planned to leave London on 7 April and would sail again for the Antipodes, and having been so busy ‘with both public and private Concerns’ he had been prevented from receiving ‘the Hints for my pursuing the Panopticon System, which you was so good as to say you would prepare for me.’ However, Collins assured Bentham ‘that my Prison shall if possible be a circular one.’

Add. MS 33,544 fo. 57 (British Library Bentham Papers)

David Collins’s farewell letter to Bentham, 4 April 1803. Add. MS 33,544 fo. 57 (British Library Bentham Paperss)

Bentham seemed quite fond of Collins, writing in reply the following day that ‘I have never been fond of leave-taking [… and] in the present instance it would have been a painful one.’ He teased Collins about the nature of his mission, hoping that in a few years he would ‘return to us in all the glory of triumphant colonization laden with the spoils of the insulated continent—kangaroo and wombat skins.’ However, he took on a chiding tone when he turned to the topic of prisons:

your time for thinking seriously of them is not yet come: if it had been, you would not, in alluding to the Panopticon construction, have taken circularity for the characteristic principle of it. Position not form: centrality of the keeper’s lodge, with a commanding view of every part of the space into which a prisoner can introduce himself (by the help of peep-holes, blinds, or any other contrivance which will enable the keepers to see upon occasion without being seen,) such is the real characteristic principle.

Context was also important: Bentham recognised that even in London, a circular panopticon was ‘attended with difficulties, which in general operate so as to increase the expense.’ In the new settlement under Collins’s command, ‘with your limited resources—I should expect to find these difficulties insurmountable’. Bentham supposed that Collins would have to rely upon logs rather than bricks and:

Logs grow in strait lines, or thereabouts […] Your circle, if of logs, would at any rate, be a polygon, if it were not a square. But why should it not be a square? If you have an open yard, as I suppose you will, the boundary wall may be composed off the four sides of another square, concentric with, and therefore including, the two others.

It is intriguing to note that in a blank space at the end of Collins’s farewell letter to Bentham (see above). someone has sketched, very roughly in pencil, what could be a square panopticon. It seems unlikely that this was Collins himself, given that he had a circular prison in mind. In signing off, Bentham wished Collins well and hoped to be one of ‘the select, who are to receive the earliest communication of your res gestae [i.e. Collins’s deeds].’

Add. MS 33,544 fo. 58 (British Library Bentham Papers)

The blank space and possible ‘square panopticon’ at the end of Collins’s farewell letter to Bentham. Add. MS 33,544 fo. 58 (British Library Bentham Papers)

Collins reached Port Phillip in October 1803, though soon decided that it was an unsuitable place for a settlement and relocated to the Derwent River in Van Diemen’s Land. Collins, overworked and exhausted, was found dead at Government House in Hobart Town on 24 March 1810, aged 54. The only evidence that Bentham heard from Collins in Van Diemen’s Land is contained in a letter of November 1805, in which he noted the arrival of a ‘packet of seeds’ from Collins. Bentham forwarded these the Foreign Secretary Charles James Fox; according to his niece, Caroline, Fox’s garden was ‘in the highest state of perfection, and he fonder of it than of the H. of Commons.’ (As a final aside, in 1805 Bentham proposed to Caroline Fox but was very gently rejected – though that is a story for another day).

[See The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham (The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham), ed. J.R. Dinwiddy, vol. vii., pp. 188, 188-90, 205, 219-20, 220-23, and 335-7]

Editing Bentham’s ‘Writings on Australia’

By Tim Causer, on 29 February 2016

Work is now well underway on the Bentham Project’s AHRC-funded project, ‘Convict Australia and Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham’s Writings on Australia’. One output of this research will be a volume of the Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, containing three important texts: ‘Panopticon versus New South Wales’, ‘A Plea for the Constitution’, and ‘Colonization Society Proposal’.

I’ve spent most of the past few weeks concentrating on ‘Panopticon versus New South Wales’. Bentham wrote this text during mid-to-late 1802 when it had become clear that the British government was to abandon his panopticon penitentiary scheme, into which he had poured a great deal of time, energy, and money over the previous decade. One of the reasons given for the abandonment of the scheme was the ‘improved state of the colony of New South Wales’, to which Britain had transported its first batch of convicts in May 1787. This was something of a red rag to a bull. ‘Panopticon versus New South Wales’ is thus both a philosophical deconstruction of the practice of convict transportation, as well as an entertaining polemic in which Bentham displays a certain level of spleen and ironic humour with which he is not typically associated.

Bentham had ‘Panopticon versus New South Wales’ privately printed during 1803 for circulation among his friends (including Samuel Romilly, William Wilberforce, and Charles Bunbury), and to politicians whom he hoped to influence. Bentham’s proposed publisher refused to publish the volume, and it lay aside and went unpublished until 1812. (The 1812 edition is, itself, simply a reissue of the 1803 version of the text).

This 1803 edition of ‘Panopticon versus New South Wales’ will form the basis of part of the forthcoming volume of the Collected Works, but elsewhere the efforts of Transcribe Bentham’s volunteers will make a significant contribution to the research. Already, volunteers have helped to identify that a third, unpublished section of ‘Panopticon versus New South Wales’ exists among UCL’s Bentham Papers; we will use these transcripts to reconstruct this part of the text in due course.

Bentham typically burned the manuscripts of works that he had published. It has become clear in the course of managing Transcribe Bentham that Box 116 of UCL’s Bentham Papers contains, in addition to the third section of ‘Panopticon versus New South Wales’, draft portions of the published text and of ‘A Plea for the Constitution’. That these drafts, which are often more radical and confrontational than the printed texts—and the printed texts are, by turns, aggressive and sarcastic enough—offer us an important perspective on censorship, and might lead us to wonder whether Bentham censored himself to avoid any potential prosecution for sedition, and why he retained these less moderate drafts. That Transcribe Bentham volunteers have transcribed almost all of Box 116 is going to be such an enormous help in this task. I couldn’t be more thankful.


Marginal contents sheet for ‘The True Bastile: shewing the outrages offered to Law, Justice, and Humanity by Mr Pitt and his Associates in the foundation and management of the penal colony of NEW SOUTH WALES’. The 'True Bastile' was Bentham's alternative (and perhaps more effective) title for ‘A Plea for the Constitution’. UCL Bentham Papers, Box 116, folio 269.

Marginal contents sheet for ‘The True Bastile: shewing the outrages offered to Law, Justice, and Humanity by Mr Pitt and his Associates in the foundation and management of the penal colony of NEW SOUTH WALES’. The ‘True Bastile’ was Bentham’s alternative (and perhaps more effective) title for ‘A Plea for the Constitution’. UCL Bentham Papers, Box 116, folio 269.

The availability of both the printed and manuscript versions of ‘Panopticon versus New South Wales’ and ‘A Plea for the Constitution’ will also allow us to create, and make freely available, online parallel versions of these texts, so that readers can easily see the differences between the printed and manuscript versions of these texts. Needless to say, transcripts produced by Transcribe Bentham volunteers will be instrumental in creating this resource (and everyone who has contributed will be fully credited there, and in the Collected Works volume).

I’m looking forward to keeping you updated in the coming months on how this work is going, and how your work has contributed to this exciting research. In the meantime, if you would like to contribute then the following batches of material are of interest to this research:

Many thanks and all the best,