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Drapetomania was a psychiatric diagnosis proposed in 1851 by physician Samuel A. Cartwright, of the Louisiana Medical Association, to explain the tendency of black slaves to flee captivity. As such, drapetomania is an example of scientific racism. The term derives from the Greek δραπετης (drapetes, "a runaway [slave]") + μανια (mania, "madness, frenzy").

The diagnosis appeared in a paper published in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, where Dr. Cartwright argued that the tendency of slaves to run away from their captors was in fact a treatable medical disorder. His feeling was that with "proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented."

If the white man attempts to oppose the Deity's will, by trying to make the negro anything else than "the submissive knee-bender" (which the Almighty declared he should be) by trying to raise him to a level with himself, or by putting himself on an equality with the negro; or if he abuses the power which God has given him over his fellow-man, by being cruel to him, or punishing him in anger, or by neglecting to protect him from the wanton abuses of his fellow-servants and all others, or by denying him the usual comforts and necessaries of life, the negro will run away; but if he keeps him in the position that we learn from the Scriptures he was intended to occupy, that is, the position of submission; and if his master or overseer be kind and gracious in his hearing towards him, without condescension, and at the same time ministers to his physical wants, and protects him from abuses, the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away.

— Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race

In the case of slaves "sulky and dissatisfied without cause"—a warning sign of imminent flight—Cartwright proposed "whipping the devil out of them" as a "preventative measure."

Cartwright also described another disorder, Dysaethesia Aethiopica, "called by overseers 'rascality'" which "is much more prevalent among free negroes living in clusters by themselves, than among slaves on our plantations, and attacks only such slaves as live like free negroes in regard to diet, drinks, exercise, etc."—indeed, according to Cartwright, "nearly all [free negroes] are more or less afflicted with it, that have not got some white person to direct and to take care of them." The symptoms described were various and apparently unconnected, including "lesions of the body discoverable to the medical observer, which are always present and sufficient to account for the symptoms":

From the careless movements of the individuals affected with the complaint, they are apt to do much mischief, which appears as if intentional, but is mostly owing to the stupidness of mind and insensibility of the nerves induced by the disease. Thus, they break, waste and destroy everything they handle […] paying no attention to the rights of property, steal others, to replace what they have destroyed. They wander about at night, and keep in a half nodding sleep during the day. They slight their work […] as if for pure mischief. They raise disturbances with their overseers and fellow-servants without cause or motive, and seem to be insensible to pain when subjected to punishment […] a disease radicated in physical lesions and having its peculiar and well marked symptoms and its curative indications. The disease is the natural offspring of negro liberty—the liberty to be idle, to wallow in filth, and to indulge in improper food and drinks.

— Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race

ReferencesEdit

  • Samuel A. Cartwright, "Report on the diseases and physical peculiarities of the Negro race", The New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal 1851:691-715 (May)
  • — reprinted in Concepts of Health and Disease in Medicine: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Boston, Addison-Wesley, 1980 (Arthur Caplan, H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., and James McCartney, editors).
  • — reprinted in Health, Disease, and Illness: Concepts in Medicine edited by Arthur L Caplan, James J McCartney, Dominic A Sisti. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press. 2004. ISBN 1-58901-014-0
  • Samual A. Cartwright, "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race", DeBow's Review—Southern and Western States, Volume XI, New Orleans, 1851

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