Racial categories and psychiatry in Africa: the asylum on Robben Island in the nineteenth century
Colonial psychiatry in Africa was, as Fanon pointed out, part of the system of
colonial control – a set of myths about the native’s laziness and brutality which justified and perpetuated settler colonial rule, and which were codified in the science of ethnopsychiatry.1 McCulloch describes how the theory of African
psychiatric inferiority was expanded in the first half of the twentieth century, relying first on supposed biological differences (size of brain) and then cultural differences (upbringing of children), and used to model a discrepancy between
ruler and ruled: whites were perceived as virtuous, and blacks as savage, lazy, promiscuous and violent.2 Ethnopsychiatry thus justified the continuation of white colonial rule at a time when African nationalists and European anti-colonialists
were pressing for change: Africans needed colonialism. Theories about the ‘primitive mind’ had already begun to play a role in colonial psychiatry during the late nineteenth century. Before the 1880s, however, ‘scientific’ psychiatry was in its
infancy, there were few colonial asylums and no clearly recognisable psychiatric profession. Empire was still riding on the self-congratulatory back of abolition and liberal paternalism; the ‘African insane’, not yet an established discursive construct,
were sometimes thought to be merely ‘African’ (and therefore ‘primitive’) or sometimes merely insane (and therefore susceptible to treatmeat).