Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

The Most Cruel and Revolting Crimes: The Treatment of the Mentally Ill in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Jamaica

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

The Most Cruel and Revolting Crimes: The Treatment of the Mentally Ill in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Jamaica

Article excerpt


"The most cruel and revolting crimes",1 so described by Henry Taylor, head of the West Indian Department at the Colonial Office in 1861, were the physical abuses that appeared to have been commonly inflicted on the patients at the Kingston lunatic asylum in mid-nineteenth-century Jamaica.2

In 1860 a pamphlet, Seven Months in the Kingston Lunatic Asylum, and What I Saw There, that ex-patient Ann Pratt reputedly authored, was circulated throughout the island, depicting conditions in the asylum. The exposure of these conditions precipitated a major enquiry into the state of Jamaica's public medical institutions, which ultimately led to an investigation into the condition of such institutions throughout the entire British Empire.

In her pamphlet Ann Pratt graphically described the worst of these "acts of cruelty and ill-usage" - the practice of tanking - after Judith Ryan, the matron of the lunatic asylum, had ordered that she be tanked:

I was . . . seized by Antoinette, Julian Burke, assisted by Lunatics, Rosa Lewis, Eliza Scott, and one called Mary. I was stripped; my arms held behind me; my legs extended and forcibly separated from each other; I was plunged into the tank, and kept under the water till all resistance, on my part, ceased; their grasp was then relaxed; I rose to the surface and breathed as if it were my last. Scarcely, however, had I drawn my breath when I was again subjected to the same horrible treatment, with the addition of having my head hurt against the sides of the tank, and my poor body beaten and confused with blows, till the fear of murder prompted them to desist.3

She claimed that she tried to alert the authorities. She did not manage to inform Mr Trench, the director of hospitals, because she had been tanked so often that on the day that he came to the asylum, "I was unable ... to complain to him about this treatment, by drinking so much water; all the dirty water which they wash these people with, that I was too sick to speak."4 However, she alleged that when she tried to tell Dr Scott, the chief medical officer at the hospital, of her treatment, Mrs Ryan interjected that the "madness was strong upon" her and retaliated with a further tanking. Pratt added that her complaints were "laughed at by Dr Scott, and made light of", and that Dr Keech, the other medical officer, "again and again put me off, by saying have patience and you will soon get out".5 Pratt's pamphlet contained a catalogue of physical and mental abuse which she claimed she and other patients had suffered at the hands of Mrs Ryan and other attendants at the asylum, and to which the medical officers appeared to have turned a blind eye.

A government commission of enquiry held in 1861 found that her accusations were largely true and that the practice of tanking was the "established punishment and means of coercion of the place"; that whenever a "female lunatic was contumacious, or incurred the displeasure, though only the capricious or vindictive displeasure, of the matron, she was ordered to be tanked". Furthermore, the commissioners came to the "painful conclusion" that death had "on more than one occasion, been accelerated, if not actually caused by this cruel practice", inflicted as it was even on those in "extreme old age", the "sick and ill", and those "far advanced in pregnancy".6

The conditions in the Kingston asylum were not exceptional in the casual neglect, inhumane care, and unhealthy environment evident there. As the 1861 Jamaican commission concluded, many of these defects also existed in the Kingston public hospital. Even more revealing was the empire-wide investigation that the Colonial Office carried out in 1863, which revealed that similar conditions existed in many colonial hospitals and asylums, and particularly those of the West Indian colonies.7 The abuses in the Kingston and other colonial asylums were reminiscent of the conditions in British asylums before the reforms of the early nineteenth century, and thus their existence in colonial asylums in the 1860s stood out as an indictment of the so-called "civilising mission" of imperial rule. …

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