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 Bentham’s proposed publisher refused to publish the volume, and it lay aside and went unpublished until 1812.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 Already, volunteers have helped to identify that a third, unpublished section of ‘Panopticon versus New South Wales’ exists among UCL’s Bentham Papers; we will use these transcripts to reconstruct this part of the text in due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.
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:
- Box 117, folios 254 to 327
- Box 120, folios 20 to 591
- Box 121, folios 332 to 345
- Box 149, folios 118 to 145
Many thanks and all the best,