Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Joy and insanity in late 19th Century India

Today I have been generating metadata for the Lunatic Asylum annual reports of Madras, 1877-1891 which will be digitised over the summer. Reading the reports more closely is a favourite part of my job.
These present interesting details of how mental illness was treated in British India at the time. The causes of insanity were divided into two main groups, physical and moral.
Physical causes included narcotic drug use, epilepsy, fever, concussion, privation (deprivation) and over-study. Grief, love and jealousy, disgrace, fear, religion and vicious habit were listed as moral causes (1882-83).

Treatment of patients (typically called lunatics or insanes until around the 1920s)emphasised "occupation, out-door exercises, good food, occasional recreation and at all times careful supervision." (1881-82, W.R. Cornish, Surgeon-General).
Occupations consisted mostly of gardening and growing food, making mats and baskets for income generation, plus upkeep of asylum grounds and clothing.

Medicinal remedies are few, as A.N. Rogers Harrison wrote in 1881: "Little specific value is attached to the curative properties of medicines...however, opium and its derivatives, bromide of potassium, hydrate of chloral...together with counter-irritation and the cold and tepid baths are all remedies that have proved of distinct service."

The image of a chained or straight-jacketed Victorian inmate is dispelled when reading these reports. Indeed, "There is no restraint during the day, however violent the patient may be; these are simply watched. At night the noisy, violent, filthy are placed in cells by themselves." (H.D. Cook, 1881)

Funds were set aside for amusements, as in 1882: "At Christmas there was the usual treat, with sport, fireworks and a band. If this concentrated joy were distributed through the year, it would do more good. Native music, sweets, jugglers and a few fireworks once a month would, at a cheap rate, give pleasure to many." (S.L. Dobie)
I will be comparing these approaches with later ones as I go through the Mental Health collection, which dates to around 1940.

(picture credit: Wellcome Images, showing Lawrence Asylum, Ootakamund, Madras (1873) and Small images of men and children, all of whom show signs of insanity (undated))

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