Wednesday, 21 July 2021

The Disease that Caused Slaves to Run Away: Drapetomania and other Delusions

In 1851, Dr. Samuel Cartwright of New Orleans claimed to have discovered mental or behavioral disorders "peculiar" to the enslaved black population. Cartwright, a strong advocate of slavery and a distinctive southern or "states rights" medicine, argued that blacks exhibited diseases and conditions that only a properly trained southern physician could detect and treat. 

He named one of these diseases "drapetomania" -- the disease that caused slaves to run away. the chief diagnostic sign of the disorder, "absconding from service," was familiar to planters and overseers. 

Unfortunately, many medical men, mostly from the North, had not paid enough attention to the peculiar diseases of blacks. They refused to see drapetomania for what it was: a type of insanity. Enslaved blacks suffering from drapetomania had become so mad that they tried to escape from a position God had designed them to fill and in which they were "normally" happy. 

Cartwright recommended a type of psychological treatment for drapetomania. To prevent or cure it, it was essential to elicit "awe and reverence" from the enslaved toward white men, their natural superiors. 

Masters and overseers had to make them understand that their intended lot, decreed in the Bible, was submission. They should treat the slaves graciously, supply their physical needs, and protect them from abuse. But they should never treat a slave as an equal or allow him to be anything but a "submissive knee bender." [Below: Cartwright and a submissive knee bender.]

Slaves who exhibited restlessness in their position, who became "sulky and dissatisfied," Cartwright warned, were showing signs of developing drapetomania. The causes of dissatisfaction should be investigated and removed. If no cause could be detected, the best remedy was the traditional one of "whipping them out of it." I suspect many masters and overseers did not need this advice.  [Below: Abolitionist Image]

Cartwright "discovered" another type of mental illness peculiar to blacks. He called it "Dyaethesia Aethiopica, or Hebetude of Mind and Obtuse Sensibility of Body." Overseers, he said, knew it as "Rascality." I'll call it "DA" for short.

DA, Cartwright claimed, was more common among free blacks than slaves. Among slaves it was restricted to those whose masters allowed them too much liberty. Black freedom was the cause of the disorder and curtailing it was the cure. 

The signs of DA included mental lethargy and a partial loss of sensibility in the skin. The sufferers tended to do a lot of mischief that seemed intentional but was due mainly "to the stupidity of mind and insensibility of the nerves induced by the disease." 

Victims were liable "to break, waste and destroy everything they handle." They "tear, burn, and rend their own clothing, and paying no attention to the rights of property, steal others, to replace what they have destroyed. They slight their work.... They raise disturbances with their overseers and fellow servants without cause or motive, and seem to be insensible to pain when subjected to punishment."

Cartwright conceded that northern physicians had observed the signs and symptoms of DA but had incorrectly attributed them to slavery. They ignored their greater prevalence among blacks who had been free for generations. DA was "the natural offspring of negro liberty -- the liberty to be idle, wallow in filth, and to indulge in improper food and drinks."

DA could also be easily cured "if treated on sound psychological principles." The main requirement was to stimulate the skin, which was "dry, thick. and harsh to the touch," and the liver, which was inactive. The "patient" should be scrubbed with warm water and soap, then covered in oil, which should be slapped in with "a broad leather strap." Slapped here looks like euphemism for "whipped."

Next,  the "patient" should be required to do some hard work in the fresh air and sunshine, to force him to expand his lungs. After resting from labor, he should be fed "some good wholesome food, well-seasoned with spices and mixed with vegetables." After more work, rest, and lots of liquids, he should be washed and sent to a clean bed in a warm room. Repeating this treatment each day would quickly bring about a cure "in all cases that are not complicated by chronic visceral derangement."   

Cartwright's descriptions shared the views of contemporary asylum doctors that many antisocial behaviors were the result of mental illness. As such, they should be treated, not punished. For Cartwright, whipping was not punishment but a necessary means of restoring the proper order of things and thus good for the slave as well as the master. It was in fact, "humane." 

Similarly, Cartwright's therapies for DA did not differ in some respects from those experienced by patients in contemporary lunatic asylums. They also emphasized work in the fresh air, good diet, bathing, and rest. (Note: asylum doctors no longer considered whipping to be therapeutic or acceptable by the 19th century). 

The difference is that Cartwright's descriptions and prescriptions were embedded in a world view that accepted slavery as a natural, God-given institution, however "peculiar." They were part of what historians have called The Proslavery Argument and what today is often called "scientific racism." In short, they were a delusional, perverse reaction to a natural human desire.

Sources: Samuel Cartwright, "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race," De Bow's Review 11 (1851) 331-36, 643-52.

Peter McCandless, Moonlight, Magnolias, and Madness: Insanity in South Carolina from the Colonial Period to the Progressive Era (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

England is a Foreign Country

Everyone knows that the pro-Brexit vote was fueled in part by a desire to "get back control" of Britain's borders. "Border control!" is of course a euphemism for "there's too many damn foreigners here!"


The desire for Brexit was and is mainly an English one. 
Wales voted Leave but by a slim margin. Northern Ireland voted Remain, but also by a slim margin. 

A large majority of Scots (61 per cent) voted Remain. Many of them wanted to keep an open border with the EU. Scotland has been bleeding people for centuries. Most Scots want immigrants to come. 

Because England is much more populous than the so-called "Celtic Fringe" of the UK, its pro-Brexit majority dragged the others out of the EU. Now the UK (i.e. English Tory) government can "control the borders" -- except perhaps in Northern Ireland. They can put up the "No Entry" sign for undesirable foreigners. 

That would seem a victory except for one problem: England has  always been full of foreigners. Nearly everybody on the island of Britain is descended from people "from off" as they like to say in the American South. 

Leaving aside the prehistoric migrations of pre-Celtic and Celtic peoples, the first recorded foreign invasion is that of the Romans. Under Claudius, they arrived to stay in AD 43, having surveyed the place a century before. [Image: Emperor Claudius]

The Roman Army pulled out shortly after 400, as their empire crumbled in the face of Germanic incursions. Some of the Germans opted to go to Britannia, as the Romans called England and Lowland Scotland.  

The Germans came in large numbers in the 5th and 6th centuries and pushed the Romanized Britons to the west and northwest. Moderns usually call the Germanic invaders Anglo-Saxons, but there were other Germanic "tribes" in the mix. The name "England" derives from the Angles (Angle-Land). [Image: Sutton Hoo Helmet, Reconstructed]

In the modern era, England has often been referred to as an "Anglo-Saxon country" but this is a gross oversimplification. Besides the Britons who were already here, new migrants/invaders soon appeared: the Vikings. [Image: Vikings. From Minnesota, sorry, but the best image of Vikings I found]

The Scandy hordes first came to England in 793 with a raid on Lindisfarne Monastery in Northumberland. In the following century raids gave way to settlement and conquest. 

The Vikings who came to the British Isles hailed from Denmark and Norway. The Norwegians focused mainly on Scotland and Ireland. The Danes concentrated on England. Before they were stopped by Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, they had gained control of the eastern half of the country: what became known as the Danelaw. 

Alfred's successors gradually reconquered the Danelaw and created an English kingdom roughly as it is today by the late 10th century. But the Danes were not through. In 1013, Danish King Sweyn conquered England. He died soon after, but his successors ruled it as part of a Danish Empire until 1042, when a half-English, half-Norman king, Edward the Confessor, ascended the throne. 

Edward had no children and his death in 1066 ended the line of Alfred the Great. A disputed succession produced several claimants to the throne. The ultimate winner was another foreigner, William of Normandy, better known as the Conqueror. [image: A near likeness of William the Conqueror from the Bayeux Tapestry]

Normandy got its name from Vikings -- "Northmen" -- who took over that part of what is now France in the 10th century. The Norman invasion army of 1066 also included French knights William bribed with promises of English land. 

For the next two centuries and more England was ruled by a Norman-French aristocracy which gave us the term "robber barons." By the 14th century, however, the foreign elite began to merge with the locals culturally and linguistically. The England of today began to take visible shape, heralded by Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the Hundred Years War with France. 

During the Middle Ages one group of "foreigners" was deported from England. In 1290, Edward I (Longshanks) formally expelled the Jews. That edict was not overturned until 1656, by Oliver Cromwell, who was tolerant of most folks except the Irish. Jews began to return -- at first in small numbers -- then in much greater numbers in the late 19th and 20th centuries. At that time, they were fleeing pogroms in Tsarist Russia and a general rise in anti-Semitism in Continental Europe.

The mongrelisation of England continued during the Middle Ages and beyond. England was part of a trading world that included merchants and artisans from Italy, France, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and the Hanseatic League. Many people from those places settled in England and made it their home.

When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, renewed persecution of the Protestants (Huguenots) population led many of them to emigrate. Large numbers of merchants and artisans fled to England. Among them were the famous Spitalfields silk weavers. London. 

The Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 brought another influx of foreigners, the Dutch who came in the train of William of Orange (William III). Daniel Defoe pilloried xenophobic attacks on the new arrivals in his brilliant poem, "The True Born Englishman." [Image: William III, of Orange]

Scots poured into England after the Act of Union (1707) established the Kingdom of Great Britain. They also aroused resentment, and were often portrayed in popular journals and images as impoverished, barbaric, and avaricious. (See "A Vile Country": Dr Johnson on Scotland and Scots

The Irish and Welsh also came in large numbers from the 18th century on. Irish navvies virtually built the canal and rail network of Britain, doing backbreaking, dangerous work that would be done by heavy machinery today. 

Many Italians came from the late 19th century bringing good food and ice cream. In the 20th century people from all over the far-flung British Empire began to arrive, first a trickle, then a flood. Africans, Asians, West Indians, Eastern Europeans. 

England is truly a nation of foreigners. That is part of its strength and greatness. Many different peoples, from Roman times on, have merged to create the England of today. If, like the USA, it hasn't always been welcoming to new arrivals, it has always accepted them in time. And for the most part, they have accepted if not glorified English culture, institutions, and customs. 

In 1953, the English writer L. P. Hartley published The Go Between. He opened the novel with the now famous line "the past is a foreign country." As a historian, I completely agree with that statement. I hope you will agree with me that England, too, is a foreign country. I mean that as a compliment.



Thursday, 8 July 2021

The NHS: Britain's Greatest Asset


It seems almost banal to write that the National Health Service of the UK is a national treasure. But that's what it is. I have written as much before, several years ago. (See The NHS: The Best Present Britain Ever Gave Itself). 

Since then, the country has battled and continues to battle a once in century-- we hope -- pandemic. Its response to Covid-19 in all its variants has demonstrated the tremendous asset the NHS represents to the people of the four nations. 

Yes, there have been mistakes. Some mistakes are inevitable in such an unprecedented situation. In any case, the worst "mistakes" -- I'm being kind here -- have been those committed by high ranking government officials. What shines through this dark period is the everyday dedication and outright heroism of NHS staff at all levels.

I and my family have benefited personally from their work on numerous occasions. My wife has survived two life threatening conditions thanks to prompt and effective treatment. She continues to heap accolades on those who cared for her.

A few weeks ago I had a heart attack while playing tennis. A friend kindly drove me to the local hospital. I was taken in immediately, and given an ECG and other checks within minutes. 

Within half an hour I was in an ambulance on my way to another hospital not far away that has a top cardiac unit. The ambulance crew were on top of their job and good fun to boot. About 20 minutes after arrival I was wheeled into the operating room to receive a stent. It wasn't a fun hour, but the results were marvelous.

Three days later I was discharged, feeling fit as a fiddle, but told to "take it easy" for a while. No tennis for a few weeks at least. I also brought home a big bag of meds, which I'm told will help fend off a repeat performance. Cardiac rehab coming up.

I have nothing but the highest praise for the care and treatment the doctors, nurses, and other staff provided me. I'm especially impressed because they have been under so much pressure and overworked during the past year and a half due to the pandemic. 

In return for all that effort the Tory government has offered NHS staff a one per cent raise, well below inflation. Staff are now demanding a 15% raise. They deserve it. We should support them in any way we can. 

For my American readers: the total cost to me was £0.00. I won't be having another heart attack when the bills arrive.