Drapetomania: Enslaved Africans Fleeing Captivity Was Once Considered a Mental Disorder

Drapetomania was a conjectural mental illness that, in 1851, American physician Samuel A. Cartwright hypothesized as the cause of enslaved Africans fleeing captivity.

Drapetomania: Fleeing From A Master Was Once Considered A Mental Disorder

The concept of Drapetomania was proposed by Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, an American physician, in the mid-19th century. Dr. Cartwright, a prominent proponent of scientific racism, sought to explain the growing number of enslaved Africans who were escaping from plantations in the United States. In 1851, he published an article titled “Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race” in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, where he introduced Drapetomania as a mental disorder. This hypothesis centered around the belief that slavery was such an improvement upon the lives of slaves that only those suffering from some form of mental illness would wish to escape.

Cartwright described the disorder, which he claimed was “unknown to our medical authorities,” as a consequence of masters who “made themselves too familiar with [slaves], treating them as equals.”

“If treated kindly, well fed and clothed, with fuel enough to keep a small fire burning all night — separated into families, each family having its own house — not permitted to run about at night to visit their neighbors, to receive visits or use intoxicating liquors, and not overworked or exposed too much to the weather, they are very easily governed — more so than any other people in the world. If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy. They have only to be kept in that state, to keep them from running away”

He dubbed this disease of the mind “drapetomania” and reassured slaveowners that it was entirely curable by “whipping the devil” out of the slaves who suffered from it or by cutting off their big toes.

Drapetomania: Fleeing From A Master Was Once Considered A Mental Disorder

Cartwright also pointed out that the Bible calls for a slave to be submissive to his master, and by doing so, the slave will have no desire to run away.

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; the negro will run away.”

Cartwright wrote that slaves planning to run away often got “sulky and dissatisfied without reason.” However, they and captured runaway slaves could be cured by “whipping the devil out of them” and amputating their toes.

“The best means to stimulate the skin is, first, to have the patient well-washed with warm water and soap; then, anoint it all over in oil, and slap the oil in with a broad leather strap; then put the patient to hard work in the sunshine.”

Cartwright did not stop at drapetomania. He also claimed the existence of another “mental disorder” that he called dysaesthesia aethiopica, which supposedly made slaves lazy.

Cartwright declared that dysaesthesia aethiopica often set in when the skin became less sensitive. This supposedly made the black slaves work sluggishly, as if they were half asleep.

According to him, aethiopica affected more free blacks than slaves because the free blacks didn’t have masters to care for them. However, he added that this illness could be cured by washing the desensitized skin with soap and water. Then the skin was cleaned in oil before the slave was made to work under the sun. Cartwright added that the slave would be very grateful.

Talk Africana
Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora


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