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"The evacuation of that scene of wickedness and wretchedness": Jeremy Bentham, the panopticon, and New South Wales, 1802-1803

Published onJan 01, 2019
"The evacuation of that scene of wickedness and wretchedness": Jeremy Bentham, the panopticon, and New South Wales, 1802-1803
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"The evacuation of that scene of wickedness and wretchedness": Jeremy Bentham, the panopticon, and New South Wales, 1802-1803
Description

The reputation of the utilitarian philosopher and reformer, Jeremy Bentham, as one of the foundational critics of convict transportation to New South Wales is well recognised. During the nineteenth century, as John Gascoigne notes, 'the advocates and critics of transportation ... inevitably tended to couch their arguments against a Benthamite background'. That background includes Bentham's three landmark works - two 'Letters to Lord Pelham' and 'A Plea for the Constitution'. While these were expressions of his philosophical objections to both convict transportation and the penal colony of New South Wales, they were also products of his fury at the abandonment by the British government of his panopticon penitentiary scheme. Between 1791, when Bentham offered the panopticon to the Pitt administration, and June 1803 when the scheme was effectively killed off by the Addington administration, Bentham's scheme was, in his view, undermined by wilful delay and obstruction on the part of ministers and their underlings, who privately conspired to kill the panopticon despite its construction being twice authorised by statute. By January 1802 Bentham had more or less accepted defeat. He therefore turned to the discussion and exposure of the government's 'Pretences for relinquishment' of the panopticon, one of which was the recent 'improved State of the Colony of New South Wales'. Bentham therefore set out, not just to undermine the case for transportation and the penal colony, but to comprehensively catalogue what he considered to be the corruption and deliberate nonfunctioning of government at the turn of the nineteenth century.

 

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