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

Samuel Cartwright was a medical doctor in the proslavery South. He supported slavery and even used medicine and science to justify it. In 1849, he was appointed the leader of a Louisiana state committee tasked with documenting the diseases of African-Americans.

Cartwright submitted his report, which was titled “Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race.” He claimed that blacks were inferior to whites. According to Cartwright, blacks had small brains, immature nervous systems, and sensitive skins, all of which made them good slaves. He added that a black would never be happy unless he was a slave.

Cartwright described the disorder – which, he said, was “unknown to our medical authorities.

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 added that slaves sometimes got afflicted with drapetomania, a mental disorder that made them flee from their masters. Drapetomania was formed from the Greek words for “crazy” and “runaway slave”.

He stated that the disorder was supposedly caused by masters who treated their slaves like humans.

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

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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