chapter  8
22 Pages

Institutions, people and power

Lunatic asylums in Bengal, c. 1800–1900
WithWaltraud Ernst

This focuses on the institutional history of psychiatric institutions established by the British in Bengal during the nineteenth century. The procedures involving ‘mad’ Indians and Europeans at that period closely echoed practices in Britain, where private individuals engaged in the ‘madbusiness’ offered rooms in their homes to local authorities and the fee-paying relatives of mentally ill people. Despite the small number of people institutionalized, medical practitioners in Bengal perceived insanity to be on the increase, especially from the middle of the century onwards. Unlike the rhetoric of medical and colonial discourse, actual medical practices and practitioners’ attitudes and behaviours are much more ‘messy’ and diverse, and are perhaps not always intrinsically hegemonic and exploitative simply because they were applied within a colonial context. To conceive of them exclusively as manifestations of hegemonic power runs the danger of wrongly reifying colonial and medical power as all-pervasive forces.