Bentham Project awarded AHRC grant to explore Bentham’s influence on the history of convict transportation and early European Australia

Friday 9 October 2015

In one unpublished manuscript Bentham describes how, as he saw it, the establishment of the New South Wales penal colony violated the British constitution: “Against such dominion, established as it is, ‘insurrection’ may surely be said to be a right, if not as some would add, ‘a duty’.” | Photo: Bentham Papers, Box cxvi, folio 275, UCL Library Special Collections

The Bentham Project, in association with UCL History, has been awarded a grant of almost £500,000 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for a new project entitled ‘Convict Australia and Utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham’s Writings on Australia’.

This grant will enable the project team to make Bentham’s published and unpublished writings on the subjects of convict transportation, colonialism, and imperialism available for the first time in an a complete and critical edition.

Writings on Australia, which will form a new volume in the The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, will contain three seminal texts: Panopticon versus New South Wales, A Plea for the Constitution, and the hitherto unpublished Colonization Society Proposal. The volume will also contain a substantial, never-before published section of Panopticon versus New South Wales.

Writings on Australia will also consider material from surviving drafts of Panopticon versus New South Wales and A Plea for the Constitution, which are often more radical and confrontational than the published versions, and investigate why Bentham chose to moderated his views in the final texts.

Commenting on the award, Director of the Bentham Project and General Editor of the Collected Works, Professor Philip Schofield, said: “Bentham is one of the world’s most important philosophers of punishment, and this important grant will contribute to a more complete understanding of his penal theory and the reasons for, and impact of, his intervention in debates on convict transportation.”

This research will also help to shed more light on the failure of Bentham’s panopticon prison scheme, and the enduring importance of his critique of convict transportation to those campaigning for its abolition during the first half of the nineteenth century. It will also explore Bentham’s conversion to democracy and republicanism, the consistency of his opposition to colonialism, and his use of evidence in making his case against New South Wales.

Other outputs of the research programme will include an open-access version of Writings on Australia, and open-access online parallel editions of Panopticon versus New South Wales and A Plea for the Constitution that display Bentham’s published texts alongside manuscript versions of the works.

The project team, which includes Professor Schofield, Professor Margot Finn of UCL History, and Dr Tim Causer, Senior Research Associate at the Bentham Project, will also produce a series of interpretive articles and hold an international conference to explore topics relating to the research themes, which will be brought together in an edited collection of essays following the event.

Work on the project will begin on 1 January 2016 for a period of four years. Members of the public will also be invited to contribute by transcribing relevant manuscripts for the Bentham Project’s award-winning crowdsourced transcription initiative, Transcribe Bentham, which was also established under funding from the AHRC.