Colonial Psychiatry 3 – How and why?: Ethno-psychiatry and racism

If you have listened to my series of podcasts on the history of psychiatry in Britain and Ireland you will know that psychiatric relationships are at least partly about power and about the assumptions medical practitioners made concerning those they treated. In the old world, class and sex were important differentiators.

In a colonial setting there was an added dimension. Daniel H. Tuke, a British expert on insanity and visiting medical officer at England’s York Retreat, wrote in the Journal of Mental Science for 1857 that ‘the liability to mental disease is greater (other things being equal) in a civilized and thinking people, than in nomadic tribes’. So madness was the price Europeans paid for living in civilization, but transposed to a colonial setting it was the price Africans paid for encountering civilization.

Colonial psychiatrists worked to address fundamental issues of social anthropology:
How did race affect mind and behaviour?
Was it possible to change peoples and cultures?
The answer was sadly predictable and the racist ideas I outline provided a rationale for maintaining colonial dependency because they seemed to prove that Africans were unsuited to governing themselves or interacting with the wider world. Their societies had both too many and too few restraints, making them inherently unstable.

Image: Juba Central Prison, Sudan, copyright PBS (Robin Hammond, Condemned) ( )

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