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Madness and the Making of a Colonial Order in Burma*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 July 2012

University of Bristol Email:


In general, during the nineteenth century the British were indifferent to the condition of the insane in colonial Burma. This was most apparent in the Rangoon lunatic asylum, which was a neglected institution reformed reluctantly and episodically following internal crises of discipline and the occasional public scandal. However, whilst psychiatry was generally neglected, British officials did intervene when and where insanity threatened the colonial order. This occurred in the criminal courts where the presence of suspected lunatics was disruptive to the administration of justice. Insanity was also a problem for the colonial regime within the European community, where erratic behaviour was viewed as a threat to racial prestige. This paper shows how, despite its neglected status in Burma, psychiatric knowledge contributed to British understandings of Burman masculinity and to the maintenance of colonial norms of European behaviour.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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The author gratefully acknowledges the financial support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and would also like to thank Ian Brown, Rachel E. Johnson, Michael Charney and Ravi Ahuja for their comments on versions of this paper, in its various stages and guises.


1 This belief can be seen in the Government of Burma's, Ministry of Information publications from post-colonial Burma, for example, (1970). ‘Tadagale Mental Hospital’, The Guardian: Burma's National Magazine, 17:4, 5–6. It is also a perception that has a published academic existence, with inaccurate supporting statistics understating the scale of colonial institutions, in Zaw, Khin Maung (1997). Psychiatric Services in Myanmar: A Historical Perspective, Psychiatric Bulletin, 21, 506509Google Scholar.

2 As an illustrative example: Maung Po Thet, a traditional healer, was arrested, diagnosed as insane, and confined to the Rangoon Lunatic Asylum in 1898 after falling into a well. National Archives of Myanmar, Yangon, hereafter NAM, 1/15 (E), 11628, 27 November 1898.

3 Naono, A. (2009). State of Vaccination: The Fight Against Smallpox in Colonial Burma, Orient Blackswan, HyderbadGoogle Scholar.

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10 Report of the Rangoon Lunatic Asylum, for the Year 1878. Hereafter RRLA.

12 The British Medical Journal, 25 September 1880, pp. 524–525.

13 The history of this language has been explored in Scull, A. T. (1993). The Most Solitary of Afflictions: Madness and Society in Britain, 1700–1900, Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar, whereas the diversity of eighteenth-century approaches to madness has been uncovered in Porter, R. (1987). Mind-Forg'd Manacles: A History of Madness in England from the Restoration to the Regency, Athlone, LondonGoogle Scholar.

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21 IOR, P/4, Burma Home Proceedings, 23 January 1873.

22 RRLA, 1885 and RRLA, 1894.

23 Apparently local Burmese and Chinese labourers were unwilling to construct a building for the purpose of dissections, RRLA, 1880. For more on indigenous responses to dissections see the introduction to Arnold, Colonizing the Body, pp. 1–10.

24 RRLA, 1882.

25 IOR, P/4, Burma Home Proceedings, 17 July 1871.

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32 Ibid., 3 September 1895.

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39 IOR, P/4, Burma Home Proceedings, 22 February 1873.

41 Ibid., 29 May 1873.

42 And these moments often also produce extremely rich documents, see for example Foucault, M., Editor, Trans. Jellinek, F. (1982)., I, Pierre Riviere, Having Slaughtered My Mother, My Sister and My Brother. . .A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and LondonGoogle Scholar.

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47 Ibid., 31 October 1873.

48 IOR, P/5, Burma Home Proceedings, 22 June 1874.

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53 Anderson, Legible Bodies.

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56 IOR, P/4, Burma Home Proceedings, 22 February 1873.

57 IOR, P/7, Burma Home Proceedings, 1 February 1875.

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69 This contrasts with Megan Vaughan's findings on colonial Africa where the insane were viewed as not ‘other’ enough. Vaughan, M. (1991). Curing Their Ills: Colonial Power and African Illness, Stanford University Press, StanfordGoogle Scholar.

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90 RRLA, 1887 and RRLA, 1907.

91 IOR, P/6, Burma Home Proceedings, 3 February 1873.

93 Ibid.

94 Sadowsky, Imperial Bedlam; Sadowsky, J. (2003). The Social World and the Reality of Mental Illness: Lessons from Colonial Psychiatry, Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 11:4, 210214CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. For both ends of the debate see Shorter, E. (1997). A History of Psychiatry: From the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac, John Wiley and Sons, New YorkGoogle Scholar; and Szasz, T. (1976). The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct, Harper and Row, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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97 Ibid., 19 December 1873.

98 IOR, P/8, Burma Home Proceedings, August 1875.

99 IOR, P/779, Burma Home Proceedings, February 1876.

100 IOR, P/6, Burma Home Proceedings, 3 February 1873.

101 Indeed, towards the end of his life Sherlock Hare published two short works on proportional representation himself. Hare, S. (1901). A Short Summary of the Election of Representatives by the Late Thomas Hare, Civil Service Co-operative Society, LondonGoogle Scholar; Hare, S. (1904). Proportional Representation, Civil Service Co-operative Society, LondonGoogle Scholar.

102 Two of her portraits currently hang in the National Portrait Gallery, one of her father and one of her husband.

103 Williams, J. F. (1914). ‘Introductory’, in Memories of John Westlake, Smith, Elder and Co, London, pp. 116.Google Scholar

104 I am hugely grateful to Andrew Huxley for generously sharing his research and opinions on the bizarre life of Sherlock Hare with me.

105 See for example his letters in The Rangoon Gazette Weekly Budget, 4 February 1887 and 25 February 1887.

106 IOR, L/P&J/6/301 File 811, Public and Judicial Proceedings, 18 April 1891.

107 Ibid.

108 Ibid.

109 The Manchester Times, 15 May 1891.

110 IOR, P/3809, Burma Home Proceedings, 17 October 1891.

111 IOR, L/P&J/6/301, File 941, Public and Judicial Proceedings, 4 June 1891.

112 Ibid., 3 June 1891.

113 IOR, L/P&J/6/302, File 1189, Public and Judicial Proceedings, 9 July 1891.

114 IOR, P/3809, Burma Home Proceedings, 20 August 1891.

115 IOR, L/P&J/6/301, File 811, Public and Judicial Proceedings, 18 April 1891.

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119 Ibid., pp. 310–311.