Caribbean Bedlam: The Development of the Lunatic Asylum System in Britain's West Indian Colonies, 1838-1914(1)

By Smith, Leonard | The Journal of Caribbean History, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Caribbean Bedlam: The Development of the Lunatic Asylum System in Britain's West Indian Colonies, 1838-1914(1)


Smith, Leonard, The Journal of Caribbean History


Over the last couple of decades there has been a growing interest in the historical development of colonial psychiatry and of the institutions to manage and contain people deemed insane. It is significant that the early establishment of lunatic asylums was among the key practical measures of public service provision adopted in the British colonies in the nineteenth century. The conclusion is inescapable that measures to remove, sequestrate, and care for the insane were a central element in Britain's "civilizing mission". That mission comprised diverse elements in its dealings with the manifestations of mental disorder. On the one hand, mechanisms were implemented that were intended to eliminate or at least control aberrant or socially unacceptable behaviours and to maintain social order. On the other hand, there was the perceived need for the imperial power and its ruling classes to exhibit enlightened, humane and "scientific" practices towards its less fortunate subjects. The colonial lunatic asylum provided a site where these elements could be brought together and reconciled.

The British Model

It is interesting that the year 1838, when slavery officially ended in Britain's West Indian colonies, was also of great significance in the historical evolution of psychiatric practice in England itself. In June of that year, the young surgeon Robert Gardiner Hill declared the first successful abolition of the use of the instruments of mechanical restraint - chains, leg locks, handcuffs, strait waistcoats, and so on, at the Lincoln Lunatic Asylum.2 Shortly after, John Conolly demonstrated in the Middlesex County Asylum that the same could also be done in a very large institution.3 Within a few years, "non-restraint" became the benchmark for enlightened practice in the management and treatment of mental illness.

In fact, an increasingly humane approach to dealing with mentally disordered people had been apparent in Britain since the late-eighteenth century. Enlightenment philosophies encouraged a perception of the madman as a person who had lost his reason, someone who needed to be restored to rationality rather than treated as a wild beast to be tamed by coercion.4 The work of some progressive practitioners demonstrated how the regime of the asylum could be adapted as a means of therapy, using mild rather than drastic remedies. Techniques that became known as "moral treatment" would be used to influence, manage and alter behaviour, as famously demonstrated at the Quaker-run York Retreat, established in 1796.5 Similar methods were being adopted in a few private "madhouses", as well as in some of the growing number of public lunatic asylums that opened in the early nineteenth century.6 A parliamentary select committee in 1815 exposed appalling conditions in some private and public institutions. A group of reformers secured a national investigation of all the different types of institution in which the insane were incarcerated, which took place from 1842 to 1844, and led on to legislation in 1845 that required all counties in England and Wales to provide a pauper lunatic asylum.7

By the mid-nineteenth century, the philosophical basis of British asylum treatment emanated from the humane principles associated with moral treatment. In practice, it comprised three main elements: classification or the separation of people according to the nature of their mental disorder and their associated behaviours; the elimination as far as possible of the use of mechanical restraint; and the employment and occupation of patients. In the institutional context these elements were translated into "moral management", whereby all aspects of the asylum's organizational system were geared towards the maintenance of order, control and tranquillity. The key therapeutic element in a moral management system was considered to be work or other worthwhile occupation. Following the efforts of William Ellis at the West Riding Asylum, Wakefield, in the 1820s, and then at the Middlesex County Asylum in the 1830s, employment schemes steadily became disseminated throughout the public asylum sector in Britain. …

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