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The Bentham Project


The blog of UCL's Bentham Project, producing the authoritative edition of 'The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham'


Bentham’s ‘Writings on Australia’ – pre-publication texts now online

By Tim Causer, on 5 September 2018

Editor’s note, February 2022: these preliminary texts have now been superseded by the final, authoritative edition of Panopticon versus New South Wales and Other Writings on Australia, a volume in The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham published by UCL Press. The volume can be downloaded as a free PDF, and is available in paperback (£25) and hardback (£45) formats.

The Bentham Project is delighted to announce that open-access pre-publication versions of the texts constituting Jeremy Bentham’s Writings on Australia, edited by Dr Tim Causer and Professor Philip Schofield, are now available to download from UCL Discovery. The preparation of these texts has been made possible by generous funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The texts in question, several of which are now made available for the first time, can be downloaded at the following links:

  1. ‘New Wales’ (written in 1791)
  2. ‘History of Jeremy Bentham’s dealings with Lord Pelham’ (1802)
  3. ‘Letter to Lord Pelham’ (1802)
  4. ‘Second Letter to Lord Pelham’ (1802)
  5. ‘Third Letter to Lord Pelham’ (1802-3)
  6. ‘A Plea for the Constitution (1803)
  7. ‘Colonization Company Proposal’ (1831)

The first six texts are intimately connected to Bentham’s attempt to persuade the British government to build his panopticon penitentiary. The ‘New Wales‘ material, written in June 1791, a matter of months after Bentham first offered the panopticon to the Pitt administration, constitutes Bentham’s first detailed engagement with Britain’s infant penal colony of New South Wales.

In July 1793 William Pitt, the leader of the administration, and Henry Dundas, the Home Secretary, visited Bentham’s home at Queen’s Square Place in order see models of the panopticon and the machinery which the inmates would operate. They gave their approval to the scheme and asked him to proceed with making preparations. Bentham subsequently spent the best part of a decade in negotiations with the government to have the panopticon built, but the attempt to bring it to fruition was, in Bentham’s view, beset by wilful delay and obstruction on the part of ministers and their underlings. These delays and obstructions had led Bentham to believe that the government had acted in the interests of the nobility rather than in the public interest and, by January 1802, to more or less accept that the panopticon would never be built. The ‘History of Jeremy Bentham’s dealings with Lord Pelham‘ (who was then the Home Secretary) consists of letters and documents compiled by Bentham dating from 12 April 1802 to 21 August 1802, which sets out many of his grievances in regard to the panopticon, and in effect constitutes a history of the beginning of Bentham’s assault on New South Wales, the government’s preference for which over his penitentiary frustrated him.

The ‘Letter to Lord Pelham‘ constitutes perhaps the earliest detailed critique of transportation to New South Wales by a major philosopher of punishment. In ‘Second Letter to Lord Pelham‘ Bentham continues his attack, seeking by sheer weight of example to demonstrate the failure of New South Wales as an instrument of penal policy, and to compare the colony unfavourably with penitentiaries in Philadelphia and New York—institutions characterized by surveillance and hard labour, and which thus constituted the closest existing approximation to the panopticon. ‘Third Letter to Lord Pelham‘ sees Bentham extend his critique to the prison hulks and ‘improved prisons’, and is especially pointed in his criticism of Lord Pelham and his predecessor as Home Secretary the Duke of Portland for their having, for instance, not only ignored high mortality among the convicts aboard the Portsmouth hulks, but also in having actively contributed to the conditions leading to that mortality. In ‘A Plea for the Constitution‘ examined New South Wales on point of law, and sought to demonstrate that the colony had been illegally founded.

Bentham unsuccessfully sought to use his writings on Australia of 1802-3 to force the government to proceed with the establishment of the panopticon. Ultimately, the government decided to abandon the panopticon in June 1803 and Bentham set aside the works, only publishing the first two ‘Letters to Lord Pelham’ and ‘A Plea for the Constitution’ in 1812, in a single volume entitled Panopticon versus New South Wales, when the government briefly again showed interest in the panopticon.

Bentham returned to writing about Australia in August 1831, though on the subject of free rather than unfree emgration. Between 4 and 14 August 1831 Bentham composed around fifty sheets relating to an incomplete work entitled ‘Colonization Company Proposal‘, which effectively constitutes Bentham’s commentary upon the National Colonization Society’s Proposal to His Majesty’s Government for Founding a Colony on the Southern Coast of Australia.

‘New Wales’, ‘History of Jeremy Bentham’s dealings with Lord Pelham’, ‘Third Letter to Lord Pelham’, and ‘Colonization Company Proposal’, which exist only in manuscript, are here made available for the first time. The texts presented here are preliminary versions, in that the authoritative texts will appear as part of Bentham’s Writings on Australia for The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, with a full Editorial Introduction, name and subject indexes, finalized annotation, and working cross-references.

In addition to the AHRC we would like to thank the project’s co-investigator, Professor Margot Finn of UCL History; the British Academy and UCL for their continuing support of The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham; UCL Library’s Special Collections for permission to publish material from its collection of the Bentham Papers; and our Bentham Project and UCL Laws colleagues. Particular thanks are due to Dr Katy Roscoe who has provided invaluable assistance in checking the text and researching the annotation. Finally, we would like to warmly acknowledge the contributions of volunteers to Transcribe Bentham whose draft transcripts of Bentham manuscripts were used in the preparation of these texts, and who are acknowledged in the introductions to the texts.

Tim Causer and Philip Schofield






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