Seminar: Dr Tim Causer, ‘The evacuation of that scene of wickedness and wretchedness’: Jeremy Bentham, the panopticon prison, and New South Wales, 1802-3

By January 1802, the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) had, more or less, come to accept that his attempt to persuade the British government to build his panopticon prison was doomed to fail. After a decade of lobbying, beset by impasses and obstructions, Bentham concluded that he and the panopticon had been victims of ministers and their underlings who, rather than looking to promote the happiness of the general population, were more concerned in acting in the secret interests of the powerful. Bentham was particularly exercised that one of the professed reasons for looking to abandon the panopticon was the ministry’s preference for transportation, a punishment Bentham had long believed to be unjust, expensive, and corrosive rather than reformatory.

One of Bentham’s responses to the panopticon’s impending demise was to begin drafting ‘A Picture of the Treasury’, his unpublished, 200,000 word, near-contemporary history of the government’s dealings with him over the panopticon. The ‘Picture’ is an extraordinary, intimate work, though the only parts which were ever published were two ‘Letters to Lord Pelham’ and ‘A Plea for the Constitution’, which he wrote and had privately printed in 1802-3, though they were not published until 1812 in a single volume entitled Panopticon versus New South Wales.

Bentham’s writings on New South Wales comprise perhaps the first detailed critique of transportation to the colony by a major philosopher of punishment. While they undeniably gave form to his anger at his treatment by the government, less well-recognised is the practical purpose behind the writing of these texts. This paper intends to discuss that purpose, namely that these works were Bentham’s tools in his attempt to pressurise the administration into proceeding with the establishment of the panopticon, with the implied threat that if it did not, Bentham would ‘have it known in every ginshop’ that New South Wales was ‘the true Bastile’.

 Dr Tim Causer is a Senior Research Associate on The Bentham Project in the Faculty of Laws at University College London. He is currently working on Bentham’s writings on convict transportation, colonialism, and imperialism for the AHRC-funded project, ‘Convict Australia and Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham’s Writings on Australia.’ For further details see https://www.ucl.ac.uk/laws/people/dr-tim-causer

 Venue:            Old Kirk 406 (F L Wood Seminar Room)

Date:               Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Time:              12:10pm to 1:30pm

For more information: Contact Dr Adrian Muckle (adrian.muckle@vuw.ac.nz; 04 463 6773).