2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 12

The Idiots, Insane and Mad: How projections of mental illness in Indian lunatic asylums protected British imperialism.

By Shaye Mistry

It becomes an almost impossible task to single out how colonial Britain saw mental health in a period of high colonialism. In the contemporary, however,  psychiatric science was by its very nature a by-product of colonialism. In India, traditional methods of healing and dealing with madness were common and available to the British upon their arrival. Ignorance in imperialism became apparent as the British brought conceptions such as the sequestration of the insane, taking place immediately in the late 18th Century.

Asylums were establishing themselves in India just like they began to do in Victorian England, however, its foundations were secured in the signing of the Lunatic Asylums Act of 1858 – a stepping stone that formally guaranteed provisions for the maintenance and care of ‘insane – persons’ in colonial India. It formally gave the power of the state to reprimand property of those admitted to the institutions. Although there was nothing new about ‘lunacy’ given that lunacy in Britain was a growing subject, its definition remained rather vague. The Act of 1858 stretched the term to reach all those ‘of unsound mind, incapable of managing his/her affairs’ however most striking is its inclusion of behaving like an ‘idiot’. 

Yet insanity and lunacy fell under three distinct categorisations. A first kind where subjects were ’curable, incurable or insane from birth’. At the secondary level, subjects had gained ‘forms of insanity’, from cases ranging from epilepsy to excessive masturbation. A final category of idiocy was largely congenital. Colonial construction of idiocy derived from the malformed structure of someone’s skull, other explanations could too be found that excessive intercourse and masturbation were likely causes of idiocy. The sweeping generalisations made by British psychiatrists are a testament to colonialism’s alleged innate racial inferiority and savage customs. Pre- Darwinian concepts of biological classification were upheld by British contemporary understanding and attitude toward social class. Mental illness was thus seen as a problem of increased exposure to native customs, which was the primary conclusion for many British soldiers admitted into these Asylums.  

Asylums in many ways reflected the confusion of the colonial state in understanding the origins of mental illnesses. It showed a continuous grappling of Indian society, notably that of caste. Institutions were fast becoming a relief centre of those from lower castes who saw these institutions as a safe-house for the insane, yet this is two-fold. These institutions provided poorer families systematic state relief and relinquishing the burdens of ‘mad’ members of the household, where-by the authorities were intent on creating institutions which provided treatment to the ill.

‘The Asylum, I am to remark, should not be merely a place where the insane may be comfortably confined, but a hospital for their treatment and cure’ 

This in itself is largely misleading. When curing a subject is applied in this context it refers to the subjections reformation. Doctors applied techniques of punishment to those who spoke out again the colonial state, dietary practices, occupational therapy and confinement where tools doctors used to ‘reform’ the insane. Treatment also differed based on race. 

Europeans were only given food supplied from regimental European hospitals. Parsees and those who ‘wish to be a Christian one day’ were given tea, Hindus and Muslims were given a diet which consisted of rice, flour and dhal. The division was deliberately conspicuous, for example, doctors diagnosed those of lower-class status in morally disapproving and less apologetic terms than they did to those of higher standing. There were also separate wards for Hindus, Muslims and Christians, this was to avoid ‘contamination’ of different mental illness. The asylum was clearly arranged to reproduce colonial desire of a distinct separation between races. Signs of further enhancement of class prejudice, whereby separateness in the Asylum created the power to dictate how madness and lunacy were conceptualised. Natives became receptive to whatever the British wanted them to become, unlike Europeans who were sent back to an appropriate asylum in Europe. 

The construction of Asylums had laid the foundations for a modern psychiatric service in a post-independent India. In the run-up to 1947, psychiatry and the observation of mental illness underwent a rapid transformation. By 1936 in Bombay, the field became Indianized and was treated as a profession among natives,  Y.K. Kadam was appointed as the first native superintendent. Lunatics were treated as ‘patients’ becoming accepted as those with a medical illness. Hospitals began slowly to integrate these ‘new patients’ into wards, and medication for the insane began to increase in production. 

However, colonial treatment of subjects who held mental illnesses serves as an instrument on a practical level which saw British imperialists preserved the principles of social stratification and segregation. Due to greater financial strains of maintaining an empire came at the cost of progression for mental health. It had become engulfed as the ‘white man’s burden’. Yet what it demonstrates is how the treatment of the mentally ill possessed an important role in the making of colonial society in the pursuit of the colonial cause. 



https://digital.nls.uk/indiapapers/browse/archive/83977693- Block Plan of Rangoon Lunatic Asylum, 1882 

https://digital.nls.uk/indiapapers/browse/archive/83379446 – European and Native Patients in Bengal, 1871 

Primary Sources 

Annual Report on the Insane Asylums in Bengal for the Year 1867, pp. 1-15 – https://digital.nls.uk/indiapapers/mental-health.html 

Secondary Sources 

Sally Swartz, ‘The Regulation of British Colonial Lunatic Asylums And The Origins of Colonial Psychiatry, 1860–1864’, History of Psychology 13(2), (2010), pp. 160–177

Shilpi Rajpal, ‘Colonial Psychiatry in Mid- Nineteenth Century India: The James Clark Enquiry’, South Asia Research 35(1), (2015), pp.61-80. 

Waltraud Ernst, Mad Tales from the Raj: The European Insane in British India, 1800–1858. (London, 1991) 

Waltraud Ernst, ‘Idioms of Madness and Colonial Boundaries: The Case of the European and “Native” Mentally Ill in Early Nineteenth-Century British India’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 39(1), (1997), pp. 153-181

James Mills, ‘The history of modern psychiatry in India, 1858-1947.’ History of Psychiatry, 12(48), (2001), pp. 431–458.

James H. Mills, ‘Re-forming the Indian: Treatment regimes in the lunatic asylums of British India, 1857-1880’, Indian Economic Social History Review 1999 36: 407