‘”A powerful agent in their recovery”: Work as treatment in British West Indian Lunatic Asylums, 1860-1900’

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DrLeonard Smith

Medicine, Ethics, Society and History (MESH), University of Birmingham

 ‘”A powerful agent in their recovery”: Work as treatment in British West Indian Lunatic Asylums, 1860-1900’

(Introduced by: Dr Yolanda Eraso, Health and Life Sciences, Oxford Brookes University)

[12min; 14 slides]


Paper presented to the International Research Symposium:

"Therapy and Empowerment – Coercion and Punishment:

Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Labour and Occupational Therapy"

26–27 June 2013,  St Anne’s College, Oxford


Abstract: The employment of patients was at the heart of the system of ‘moral management’ that came to dominate England’s public lunatic asylums in the second half of the nineteenth century. The dissemination of the British asylum model to the colonies accorded well with the ideals of the ‘civilizing mission’. This paper considers the establishment and development of asylum regimes based on programmes of patient employment, in the important West Indian colonies of Jamaica, Trinidad and British Guiana.   

In all three places the lunatic asylum had previously been a problematic institution, with poor conditions and limited therapeutic effectiveness. Intervention from the imperial government led to the recruitment of medical superintendents with sound British public asylum experience, initially in Jamaica and subsequently in Guiana and Trinidad. They proceeded to implement extensive work schemes as part of a moral management regime.

The employment projects were developed in the context of the colonies’ plantation-based economies and their relatively recent histories of enslavement and emancipation. Their range of agricultural and industrial work became quite sophisticated, as unpaid labour enabled the asylums to move toward economic self-sufficiency. The institutions became sources of pride to the colonies’ ruling elites.

The early success of the work schemes gradually faded, however, as the lunatic asylums inexorably grew in size. Medical superintendents had increasing difficulty in finding sufficient work to occupy ever larger numbers of people, as the relative proportions of able patients diminished. In many instances therapeutic work gradually became transformed into routinised drudgery.    



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