Colonial Psychiatry 1 – What and where?: colonial psychiatry’s origins and characteristics

I have been asked by the Scotland Malawi Mental Health Project to prepare a short series of podcasts to act as a component of the training programme for psychiatrists at the College of Medicine in Malawi. Like much of the less developed world, Malawi has limited resources for specialist psychiatric care: the ratio of psychiatrists per head of population is less than 1% of that in Western Europe. The two series of podcasts already broadcast have been used to help train clinicians and nurses in Anglophone sub-Saharan Africa, including Malawi.

The practice of psychiatry in a colonial setting is surprisingly varied. Even within British colonies around the world, those who received psychiatric care, where they were treated, and to what ends was significantly different. Other European colonies were different again.
So colonial psychiatry, as practised between the 18th century and the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, is a rich and varied topic. I want to narrow it down. I’m going to stick to Anglophone southern and eastern Africa, between the 1880s and 1960s, because that covers the geographical and cultural area in which Malawi is located. Between 1891 and 1964, when it became independent, Malawi was the British Protectorate of Nyasaland.

Up to the middle of the nineteenth century the old world shared many of the characteristics we shall encounter in African colonies between the 1880s and 1960s. I’m going to set out 8 key similarities. I then explain what changed in Britain and Ireland over the last two centuries. Finally, I’ll summarise the distinctive experience of southern Africa under colonization, which I’ll explain in detail next time.

Image: Eket, Nigeria. Copyright Robin Hammond, Condemned,

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