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Bentham and Australia

Conference at University College London on 11-12 April 2019, organised by the Bentham Project
Bentham and Australia
Centre Bentham

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1The ‘Bentham and Australia’ conference took place on 11-12 April 2019 at University College London. It was hosted by the Bentham Project to mark the forthcoming publication of Bentham's Writings on Australia, a new volume edited by Tim Causer and Philip Schofield, as part of the on-going edition of The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham.


2In a format the Bentham Project had already tested in previous events, the ‘Bentham and Australia’ conference saw Bentham and non-Bentham scholars explore these new and exciting texts.

3The first series of these writings were composed between 1791 and 1802 (New Wales, First, Second and Third Letters to Lord Pelham, History of Bentham’s dealings with Lord Pelham, Plea for the Constitution) in the context of Bentham’s engagement with the Panopticon. Indeed, Australia was offering a viable alternative to the overcrowding of convicts in prison-hulks on the River Thames, after the end of the deportation scheme to North America that followed the outbreak of the War of Independence. In that context, Bentham considered (rightly) that transportation was competing with his project, which aimed to cater for the same convicts but in Britain and in the panoptic penitentiaries he was hoping to build.

4A second series was composed in 1831 (Colonization Company Proposal) as a blueprint for the colonisation of Western Australia.


5Contributions from academics coming from many fields of study made it possible to consider Bentham’s texts from very different perspectives. Were discussed, amongst other relevant topics, colonialism, convict transportation, the histories of Aboriginal and European Australia, and the histories of crime and punishment.

6The first contribution by Hamish Maxwell-Stewart on ‘Bentham, Convict Transportation and the Great Confinement Thesis’ challenged the dichotomy – inaugurated with Bentham’s Panopticon vs New South Wales (now renamed New Wales) – of a competition between transportation and confinement. It showed transportation also involved confinement both at sea (in hulks and on ships) and on land (in the colony). History brings another twist to the ‘Panopticon vs New South Wales’ paradigm, as Australia has several Panopticon-shaped penitentiaries, to which other contributions were dedicated. Indeed, two papers by Honey Dover on ‘Hampton and James Boyd at Port Arthur’ and Emily Lanman on ‘The Panopticon and the Swan River Colony’ delved into the penitentiary panoptic experiments in Tasmania and Western Australia, looking at the inspiration for these penitentiaries as well as the similarities in management with Bentham’s Panopticon.

7Unsurprisingly, transportation was a central issue in the discussions, looking at the various modes of incarceration, from Bridewells to confinement on waters (in hulks and then convict-ships) and on land. Hulks were very convenient modes of housing convicts and were quite resilient to attack by penal reformers, as Tim Causer explained in his talk on ‘Bentham and the Convict Hulks, 1778-1803’. The effects of transportation were also discussed by Barry Godfrey in ‘Prison vs Western Australia: What worked Best; How do We Know and Why does it Matter?’. He examined the different modes of disciplining convicts through the control of their bodies by (1) the courts, by (2) the penitentiary system and by (3) an efficient administrative machine, which helped prison management – as well as today’s researchers – to track convicts in almost all aspects of their offending, re-offending and past-offending lives. Some of these former convicts even shared Bentham’s radical platforms advocating for the abolition of transportation and the secret ballot, such as Samuel Chapman, as Chris Holdridge explained in his contribution on ‘The Afterlives of Bentham: On Tickets of Leave, Exile and Penal Colonisation’.

8Deborah Oxley in ‘Bentham’s Bedfellows’ set transportation in the changing economic context of poverty and crime from the Middle-Ages to the Industrial Revolution. She showed how transportation was an intermediate system that made possible the transition between the death penalty and the penitentiary, to allow for the development of a modern matrix of policing crime which could include efficient detection, prosecution, judicial system and probation.

9For the first time, a contribution bridged the gap between Bentham studies and studies on indigenous people. Zoe Laidlaw landmark talk on ‘Bentham’s silence on indigenous people’ took to task Bentham’s writings for their silence or misrepresentation of aboriginal people in Australia, showing that, in this instance, Bentham did not challenge the discourse on dispossession of aboriginal land, culture and humanity. The contentions run counter the received interpretation of Bentham’s attitudes to the underdog, as set out in Lea Campos-Boralevi’s iconic Bentham and the Oppressed.

10Hilary M. Carey’s contribution on ‘Bentham, Rational Dissent and the Transportation Debate’ investigated the strategic alliances Bentham made with religious reformers, mainly of the dissenting denomination, to promote projects such as the improvement of prisons, the abolition of transportation or the setting up of a new settlement in Western Australia.

11Legal reform was at the core of the analysis of Bentham’s work in Edward Cavanagh’s paper on ‘English Administrative System’. The legal framework of the Australian settlement was considered, especially in relation to the illegality of executive orders. The validity of the legal grounds on which such a challenge to executive authority was made was closely examined. Kristen McKenzie’s contribution on ‘Confinement, Banishment and Bondage: Contesting Practices of Exile in the British Empire’ noted the shaky legal foundations of transportation before 1820s and examined the case of the Scottish Martyrs. Bentham’s reflection on Australia also tied in with his constitutional concerns for more representative institutions, thus Western Australia acted as a blueprint for Bentham’s democratic experiments, as Philip Schofield explained in ‘Jeremy Bentham on Representative Democracy and Colonial Government’.


12The concluding remarks of these two fascinating days were given by Margot Finn. She highlighted the importance of the sea as an important locus of the penal system and the ways in which the voices of aboriginals, convicts and women could be better represented in the new Bentham historiography the conference inaugurated. She also pointed out that the additional emphasis should be laid on forced labour, and its attendant form as slavery.

13The proceedings of the conference will be published in due course by UCL Press.

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Centre Bentham, « Bentham and Australia »Revue d’études benthamiennes [En ligne], 15 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2019, consulté le 22 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Centre Bentham

Ecole de droit de Sciences Po, Paris

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