restricted access Psychiatry and Colonial Ideology in Nigeria
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Psychiatry and Colonial Ideology in Nigeria

Objectivity can sometimes become an obstacle in the search for truth.

T. A. Lambo, 1955 1

For the native, objectivity is always directed against him.

Frantz Fanon, 1963 2

If critiques of the objectivity of scientific and medical research are fairly common now, it is striking to see them developed by two major (perhaps the major) psychiatrists of the late colonial era in Africa, more than a generation ago. For both Lambo and Fanon, the context of such a critique was the experience of working in psychiatric institutions originally developed by colonial powers. This article explores the colonial psychiatric discourse generated in one colony, Nigeria. It seeks to show [End Page 94] how objectivity could be thought an obstacle to truth, how it could be directed against the “native.”

The lunatic asylum was introduced into Nigeria in 1906, in order to house and control a growing number of vagrant “lunatics” in the urban centers. 3 But the use of these institutions was very diffident. Colonial officials preferred whenever possible to leave suspected “lunatics” in the care of their relatives. This preference in part reflected the colonial doctrine of Indirect Rule, which sought to administer a colonial state and at the same time preserve “traditional” African institutions. 4 Yet by the time Nigeria’s independence was achieved in 1960, the asylums confined hundreds of Nigerians, and many more had been turned away due to overcrowding. This was a small proportion of the total population, but both colonial officials and many Nigerians perceived a significant rise in the prevalence of mental illness. 5 While it would be hard to establish that a true rise in the prevalence of mental disorder was taking place, that perception does indicate a genuinely growing problem: there was, in the large cities, an increasing number of lunatics for whom no one was able or willing to take care.

The confining of hundreds of alleged lunatics occasioned a psychiatric literature that sought to explain the apparent rise in mental illness. The social meanings of madness were discussed in these reports, but mostly in generalizations about African character that equated difference from the West with incommensurability. One could as easily have used patients’ symptomatology to show identity between European and [End Page 95] African psychopathology. Indeed, generic (European) nosology was used avidly, showing that for individuals, similarities in presentation were recognized. 6

Mental pathology in colonial Africa has been a subject of critical inquiry at least since the famous anticolonial censures of Frantz Fanon. It has been a subject of renewed historiographic interest since Megan Vaughan published a remarkable article on the Zomba lunatic asylum of Nyasaland in 1983. 7 A major contribution of this historiography has been to show how conceptions of an African mind, in grave danger of deculturation, functioned within colonial ideologies. This article seeks to examine these representations in the specifically Nigerian literature more closely than has been done previously, partly to judge the extent of Nigeria’s distinctiveness, and also to develop comparative inquiry into the nature of colonial science. 8

The historical literature on colonial psychiatry has tended to treat it as a single discourse. 9 This approach has provided important contributions; Jock McCulloch, for example, has shown how even writers who worked in isolation from each other reproduced similar ideological features in their work. He concluded that the social context—colonialism—determined the contours of the theory. 10 If so, Nigeria, which differed substantially from Kenya, South Africa, and other African colonies (whose psychiatric practices have received more attention from historians) because it was not a settler colony, might provide a useful comparison. The Nigerian literature, I will argue, was both similar and different in revealing ways: its colonial psychiatric theory was relatively “liberal,” less reliant on the most overt and virulent forms of racism, but it was nevertheless [End Page 96] limited by its colonial origins in its ability to abandon rigid conceptions of cultural difference, even as those conceptions were recognized to be inadequate.

Specifically, I examine the writings of Bruce Home, Robert Cunyngham Brown, and John Colin Carothers, the three most important colonial psychiatrists with Nigerian experience. With the partial...