Nineteenth century lunacy in the Cape Colony

A few months ago, I wrote about lunacy in the Victorian goldfields in the nineteenth century, or rather I didn’t, but I did pose the question about the treatment of the wandering disturbed who inevitably would have been attracted to the goldfields and who possibly eked out a living begging and doing odd jobs on the fringes of goldfields society.

I recently came across a South African book – Homeless Wanderers: Movement and Mental Illness in the Cape Colony in the Late 19th Century – which I bought for its title alone, thinking that it would deal with the wandering lunatics that would have equally been attracted to the goldfields and diamond mines of late nineteenth century South Africa.

The book didn’t turn out to be that – rather more an account based on nineteenth century colonial records on the treatment and management of the mentally ill in the Cape Colony, something that appears to have been done with some compassion, despite either the lack of facilities or real knowledge of mental illness.

Prior to the mid nineteenth century, the mentally ill were either cared for by their families, or else rejected and left to wander the countryside. Only if they were violent psychopaths were they confined, and then more society’s protection than their own good.

All colonial societies faced the problem of those who arrived, became mentally ill, and having no family to care for them, became a problem for society, and hence the establishment of asylums to care for these unfortunate individuals.

In fact the colonial administration tried, where possible to track down family members who might be willing to bear the costs of treatment, as well as passing laws to discourage the mentally ill being dumped in the colony – the fear being that ‘mad cousin Charles’ would be sent out to the colony to get them out of the way,

What emerges though is a vivid picture of the treatment of the mentally ill, and one aspect that I had not really thought of – the difficulty of transport of the mentally ill in a developing colony – such as the tale of a disturbed woman confined for her own safety in ‘a brick shed in the wilds of Pondoland’, miles from any railhead.

Presumably the shed was used as the only secure accomadation available, and even then the local magistrate was concerned that her repeated attempts to dig her way out of the earth floored building would lead to a wall collapsing and injuring her.

Likewise, there were the cases of women, mainly Russian Jews, fleeing persecution in their native company, who were stressed and traumatised by the experience of losing everything and being at risk of rape and exploitation while fleeing, and who, when pregnant or when they gave birth suffered episodes of extreme anguish.

We learn of these cases of course, precisely because these women were refugees, with little or no immediate family to turn to, and therefore were subject to discussion by the Colonial authorities.

And while there were attempts to recover costs, there was also a degree of reciprocity amongst the various settler polities in Southern Africa, including were, in the case both Rhodesia and the German colony of South West Africa facilities to care for the disturbed were less developed (or in the case of Rhodesia in the early days, non existent) that it was better that individuals be treated in South Africa.

Treatment of course, at this time essentially being confining disturbed individuals somewhere separate from the rest of society, and at the same time providing a relatively stress free environment in the hope that the individual might in time recover.

There were no anti psychotic drugs, or punitive treatments such as electroconvulsive shock at this time, so other than attempts to calm disturbed individuals through the use of opiates, treatment usually consisted of rest and what might now be called occupational therapy through gardening and handicrafts.

So, an interesting book, even if it covered a different aspect of the topic than I expected …



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About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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