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  • "In the Cheapest Way Possible...":Responsibility and the failure of improvement at the Kingston Lunatic Asylum, 1914-19451
  • Darcy Hughes Heuring

When British psychiatrist Dr. Dale Hewson arrived in Kingston, Jamaica in 1927 to take up the post of head of the colony's only insane asylum, he was shocked by what he found. Open drains with dirty water and sometimes sewage were within easy reach of patients. Some wards had no latrines or washing places, and upstairs latrines leaked into patient wards below. In the years before his death in 1937, Hewson repeatedly tried to improve conditions. And yet his replacement arrived to find that little had changed. How do we explain this lack of progress? This article traces the complex ways in which social perceptions of the insane, a dearth of colonial funds, and the actions of Jamaican politicians on behalf of their middle and upper class constituents stymied attempts to improve conditions at the asylum, and informed conflicts among authorities in Britain, British colonial officials in Jamaica, and Jamaican politicians over who was financially responsible for the island's 'lunatics.' An analysis of the role these factors played in attempts to improve the asylum reveals the ways in which local colonial problems and conflicts shaped British political concerns about the maintenance of empire and its declining position as a global power in the interwar period.

This examination departs from current scholarship on colonial asylums in its focus on Jamaica as a site of contestation over responsibility for the insane. This reveals much about the inner workings of colonial rule, rather than the history of institutional psychiatric practice or manifestations of mental illness, the usual historiographical concern.3 Like other colonial institutions for the insane, Jamaica's asylum was a locus of conflicts over economic and moral responsibility between and among British officials and Jamaican politicians, and so it provides a site for studying the intricate dynamics of colonial rule in one context. Furthermore, it helps us better understand the ways in which colony and metropole were "mutually constitutive," as Catherine Hall and other scholars have argued.4 Events in Britain directly impacted Jamaica's affairs. But conversely, Jamaica's problems did not stay "conveniently over there."5 This article demonstrates how the failure of improvement at Jamaica's asylum was in part the fallout of British policies, and helped to shape British imperial policy in a much broader way.

An analysis of problems of improvement at Jamaica's asylum demonstrates the complexities and instabilities of governance at the British imperial, colonial, and local Jamaican levels. "The colonizers" were not a unified, homogeneous group who governed a united and uniform group of "colonized" peoples in a consistent and organized manner. Divergent motivations, goals, beliefs, lifestyles, contests over race and class, and even individual pride and selfishness divided the allegiances of British colonizers as well as colonized Jamaicans. As Richard Price argues, while the empire may have appeared unified to those in the metropole, at the local level it was an on-going "untidy" process of negotiation and struggle.6

The Problem of Improvement at the Kingston Lunatic Asylum

More than four decades ago, Michel Foucault located the rise of the public insane asylum within a broad narrative of the growing dominance of Enlightenment reason and the rise of scientific surveillance in which a system of penal, medical, and moral regulation was introduced in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Europe.7 This required expert knowledge to discipline the errant individual. Historians of insanity and psychiatry have since challenged, refined, and qualified Foucault's account of the rise of the asylum, but they have also remained profoundly influenced by the Foucauldian narrative.8 Historians of empire have shared Foucault's understanding of modernization as the introduction of a rational institutional order that marginalized and disciplined the deviant, as well as his view that any institution must be understood in the context of social rules of behavior. However, they have shown that, unlike Europe, Britain's colonies did not experience a "great confinement." Colonial asylums generally confined only a fraction of those considered insane by their families and/or communities, and were underfunded, overcrowded, and neglected by the colonial...

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