How Colonial Masters Weaponized Psychiatry in Africa
Other than the fact that European nations had economic interests in Africa, the idea of colonialism stemmed from white supremacist beliefs that those outside the western culture were inferior and needed to be dominated.
To achieve complete dominance, the colonial masters had to come up with ingenious ways of subjecting the native African to their rule as violent confrontations didn’t always work.
Hubert Lyautey, a colonial administrator of Morocco for 13 years was bold enough to suggest at a psychiatric conference in Rabat in 1933 that,
‘‘The physician, if he understands his role, is the primary and the most effective of our agents in penetration and pacification…”
Originally from France, Lyautey’s sentiments should not come as a shock considering that European social theorist’s such as Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud all propagated the idea of the superior white man.
However, the colonialist’s voice on the subject of psychiatry and it’s effects on the native African populace was not singular.
Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist, revolutionary and Pan-Africanist worked in Algeria from 1953 to 1957 and recorded his experiences and thoughts on various issues including ethnopsychiatry in his 1961 title, The Wretched of the Earth.
In the Chapter Colonial War and Mental Disorders, he remarks,
“The truth is that colonization, in it’s very essence, already appeared to be a great purveyor of psychiatric hospitals. Since 1954, we have drawn the attention of French and international psychiatrists in scientific works to the difficulty of ‘curing’ a colonized subject correctly, in other words making him thoroughly fit into a social environment of the colonial type…”
Ethnopsychiatry, defined by the US National Library of Medicine as an approach aimed to understand the ethnic and cultural dimensions of mental illnesses, is not acknowledged as an exact science by many scholars.
Though considered a branch of medical anthropology, the origins of ethnopsychiatry historically studied the theories and customs of primal and folk psychiatry, believing that those outside of the European experience and culture had a inferior psyche.
An early example of ethnopsychiatry can be traced back to American Dr. Samuel Cartwright who in 1851 formulated a new mental illness called Drapetomania, exclusively affecting African Americans.
The pro-slavery physician argued that African American slaves who attempted to escape from their masters were mentally ill thus suggesting a remedy of ‘whipping the devil out of them’ as a preventative measure for the illness.
His attempt at trying to diagnose escaping slavery as a mental illness may sound ridiculous considering the current advancements in medicine but Cartwright’s sentiments still had an impact many years later.
While working for the colonial government of Kenya in 1921, Dr. H.C Gordon also formulated a mental illness he called bradyphysis (backwardness), arguing that educating native Kenyans was a waste of resources due to their inferior intelligence level hence advocating for continued colonization.
These fallacious claims by physicians were in the most part taken as the gospel truth by colonial administrators and used against the natives.
Yet the actions of Gordon and Cartwright go against the Hippocratic Oath taken by all physicians swearing to do no harm to those under their care.
Fanon further shows the disparity between the colonization of Caucasians against that of Algerians, he says,
“We must remember in any case that a colonized people are not just a dominated people. Under the German occupation the French remained human beings. Under the French occupation the German remained human beings. In Algeria there is not simply domination but the decision, literally, to occupy nothing else but a territory…”
The estimates on the number of casualties with mental disorders after the colonization of Africa is not recorded but one can only imagine the impact the wars and violence had on the psyche of the native African.
The stench of colonial policies of using psychiatry as a tool against the native Africans is still felt throughout the continent where many psychiatric hospitals and mental asylums resemble and are run like prisons.