Abstract

The British island of Tristan da Cunha in the mid-south Atlantic has long found a place in the scholarly literature on mass hysteria on the basis of an epidemic of “fainting spells” that afflicted women on the island in 1937–38. This prominence is due to the coincidental presence of a Norwegian scientific expedition on the island at the time. The paper draws on the published and private accounts of the Norwegian expedition to offer a re-reading of the epidemic as an indigenous political response to both the subsistence crisis afflicting the island and the exacerbation of that crisis by the missionary regime of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Young women were the most vulnerable to both the subsistence crisis and missionary regime and took the lead in forcing the pace of their economic independence by performing a “fighting spell” that challenge the new missionary imposed economic and moral order on the island and their elders acquiescence to the new regime. The pathologisation of this female youth politics through the hysteria diagnosis is shown to be driven by metropolitan observers’ duel commitments to a romantic notion of island society and the maintenance of patriarchy. While the natives were diagnosed as suffering from a psychopathology, the psychopathologies of the resident Englishmen on the island were written out of the record to create the illusion of a rule of reason.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 100-124
Launched on MUSE
2015-09-30
Open Access
No
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