Homeless Wanderers: Movement and Mental Illness in the Cape Colony in the Nineteenth Century

By Browde, Cara | Psycho-Analytic Psychotherapy in South Africa, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Homeless Wanderers: Movement and Mental Illness in the Cape Colony in the Nineteenth Century


Browde, Cara, Psycho-Analytic Psychotherapy in South Africa


Homeless Wanderers: Movement and Mental Illness in the Cape Colony in the Nineteenth Century, by Sally Swartz University of Cape Town Press, 2015. ISBN-10 1775820823 and ISBN-13 978-1775820826

Cara Browde

You only are free when you realise you belong no place - you belong every place - no place at all

(Maya Angelou in Conversations with Maya Angelou, 1989)

A reflection of Sally Swartz's panoptic interests, Homeless Wanderers is the combined outcome of an academic's systematic research into the history of psychiatry in the Cape Colony at the turn of the 19th century, as well as a clinician's personal grappling with what it means to be a psychologist in present-day South Africa. In the finding and telling of stories of the mentally-ill during the peak of the colonial project, Swartz tries to explore the tangled links between psychiatric treatment and colonial oppression. While the book's narrative recognises psychiatry's historic role in the subjugation of aberrant forces in a community, the social construction of mental illness is not explicitly foregrounded. Instead, Swartz attempts to understand the ways -both subtle and obvious - in which care offered to the mentally ill can simultaneously be an acknowledgment of and a refusal to think about them.

At a time in South Africa's history when identities were being inextricably anchored to skin colour, the psychiatric institution unquestioningly defined itself as driven by compassion and respect for those of 'unsound mind' who found themselves within the colony's borders. In a probing and far-reaching narrative, Homeless Wanderers skilfully puts psychiatry's self-definition on trial. The central question of the book is: ' ... whether and the extent to which British colonial regimes of care for the insane were underpinned by a humanitarian impulse, or were deeply oppressive, and therefore, by implication, weighed on the side of a variety of colonial violences' (p. 183).

Examining various aspects of psychiatric care at a critical point in our country's history, the work delivers historical knowledge while still managing to resonate with pressing relevance. Information gathered from personal and public records lays the foundation for understanding the trajectory on which the mental health profession has travelled. As Swartz notes, the 'quandaries and cruelties' (p. xi) of the past are still with us. She asks her reader to join her on a journey to uncover the forces that have shaped, and in many important ways, continue to shape our work as mental health practitioners.

The time period of focus, 1890-1910, was chosen because it represents a time of enormous social change in the Cape Colony. During this period, immigration rates rose significantly, and this influx of people posed a challenge to the central work of the settlement: the vigilant policing of insider-outsider status. From the perspective of stability and control, madness presented an insidious threat to the consolidation of colonial identity. 'Apart from the ways in which the insane troubled the 'settled' respectability of the colony and acted as a beacon, which unpleasantly signalled the presence of trauma and violence, there were practical problems that their presence entailed' (p. 118).

'Practical' problems need 'practical' solutions, and so at the beginning of this period the Cape Colony busied itself with the construction of buildings to house the insane and appointed its first Inspector of Asylums. In addition, new legislation was drafted to control the movement of those deemed insane into its borders. As settler identity was by definition only conferred on some, the policing of boundaries was paramount. The identification and treatment of the mentally ill linked with already operative pressures of inclusion and exclusion intrinsic to the colonial project. Under a humanitarian veil, careful planning and documentation was invested to curb the potentially unravelling influence of the mentally 'unfit'. …

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