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Madness and the Making of a Colonial Order in Burma*


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.

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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.

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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, 506509.

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, Hyderbad.

4 For instance, the British in Burma were reluctant to spend money to train Burmese medical staff preferring instead to recruit Indians. Edwards P. (2010). Bitter Pills: Colonialism, Medicine and Nationalism in Burma, 1870–1940, The Journal of Burma Studies, 14, 2158.

5 Arnold D. (1993). Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-Century India, University of California Press, Berkeley.

6 Brown I. (2010). Death and Disease in the Prisons of Colonial Burma, The Journal of Burma Studies, 14, 120.

7 For the distinctive nature of colonial rule in Rangoon justifying the term of ‘colonial centre’, see Charney M. (2009). A History of Modern Burma, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 1845.

8 Jackson L. (2005). Surfacing up: Psychiatry and Social Order in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1908–1968, Cornell University Press, Ithaca; Sadowsky J. (1999). Imperial Bedlam: Institutions of Madness in Colonial Southwest Nigeria, University of California Press, Berkeley.

9 Chatterjee P. (1994). The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Oxford University Press, Delhi, pp. 1434; Burton A. M. (1999). ‘Introduction: The Unfinished Business of Colonial Modernities’ in Burton A. M., Gender, Sexuality, and Colonial Modernities, Routledge, London, pp. 116; Stoler A. L. (2002). Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule, University of California Press, Berkeley.

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 Haven, 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, London.

14 This has been demonstrated excellently with reference to urban planning in Legg S. (2007). Spaces of Colonialism: Delhi's Urban Governmentalities, Blackwell, Malden.

15 Redfield P. (2005). ‘Foucault in the Tropics: Displacing the Panopticon’ in India J. X.Anthropologies of Modernity: Foucault, Governmentality and Life Politics, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 5082. This argument resonates with the idea of a ‘state of exception’ in Agamben G. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford University Press, Stanford.

16 This is perhaps a common feature of the colonial state in British India, its improvised nature: Sherman T. (2010). State Violence and Punishment in India, Routledge, London.

17 NAM, 1/1 (A), 1272, 11 March 1868.

18 India Office Records, British Library, London, hereafter IOR, P/434/1, Burma Home Proceedings, 13 February 1866. For the historiographic notion of Burma's neglected position in relation to the rest of British India see, Callahan M. P. (2003). Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma Cornell University Press, Ithaca; Hall D. G. E. (1956) Burma, 2nd Edition, Hutchinson's University Library, London; Taylor R. H. (1987). The State in Burma, C. Hurst and Co, London; Cady J. F. (1958). A History of Modern Burma, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

19 NAM, 1/1 (A), 1143, 26 November 1867, 3 January 1868, 13 January 1868.

20 IOR, P/2, Burma Home Proceedings, 1 February 1872.

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.

26 For a broader discussion of the difficulties raised by the presence of a mixed race population for British officials, see Edwards P. (2002). Half-Cast: Staging Race in British Burma, Postcolonial Studies, 5:3, 279295.

27 IOR, P/5, Burma Home Proceedings, 23 January 1874.

28 It has been previously noted by post-colonial scholars that the introduction of modern disciplinary techniques coincided with new conceptions of the economy: Kalpagam U. (2000). Colonial Governmentality and ‘the Economy’, Economy and Society, 29:3, 418438; Mitchell T. (2006). ‘Society, Economy, and the State Effect’, in Gupta A. and Sharma A.Anthropology of the State: A Reader, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 169186.

29 Maxim S. H. (1992). ‘The Resemblance in External Appearance: The Colonial Project in Kuala Lumpur and Rangoon’ Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Cornell University.

30 For an overview of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission see, Mills J. H. (2005). ‘Cannabis in the Commons: Colonial Networks, Missionary Politics and the origins of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission 1893–4’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 6:1.

31 IOR, P/4676, Burma Home Proceedings, 29 March 1895.

32 Ibid., 3 September 1895.

33 Burton, ‘Introduction’; Chakrabarty D. (1992). Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?, Representations, 37, 126.

34 Foucault M., Trans. Howard R. (2001). Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, Routledge, London; Mills J. H. (2000) Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism: The ‘Native-Only’ Lunatic Asylums of British India, 1857–1900, Macmillan, Basingstoke.

35 Keller R. C. (2001). Madness and Colonization: Psychiatry in the British and French empires, 1800–1962, Journal of Social History, 35:2, 295326; Keller R. C. (2007). Colonial Madness: Psychiatry in French North Africa, University of Chicago Press, Chicago; Kapila S. (2002). ‘The Making of Colonial Psychiatry, Bombay Presidency, 1849–1940’, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; Mills J. H. and Jain S. (2007). ‘Mapother of the Maudsley and Psychiatry at the End of the Raj’, in Mahone S. and Vaughan M.Psychiatry and Empire, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, pp. 153171.

36 Brown I. (2007a). ‘South East Asia: Reform and the Colonial Prison’, in Dikotter F. and Brown I.Cultures of Confinement: A History of the Prison in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, pp. 221268; Brown I. (2007b). A Commissioner calls: Alexander Paterson and colonial Burma's prisons, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 38:2, 293308; Brown I. (2009). A Shooting Incident at Insein Prison, Burma, in 1947, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 37:4, 517535; Warren J. (2002). The Rangoon Jail Riot of 1930 and the Prison Administration of British Burma, South East Asia Research, 10:1, 529.

37 RRLA, 1888.

38 Sherman, State Violence and Punishment, pp. 1–13.

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 London.

43 Foucault M., Trans. Sheridan A. (1979). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth; Ignatieff M. (1978). A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850, Macmillan, London.

44 Anderson C. (2004). Legible Bodies: Race, Criminality and Colonialism in South Asia, Berg, Oxford; Pierce S. (2001). Punishment and the Political Body Flogging and Colonialism in Northern Nigeria, Interventions: The International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 3:2, 206221; Yang A. A. (1987). Disciplining ‘Natives’: Prisons and Prisoners in Early Nineteenth-Century India, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 10:2, 2945.

45 IOR, P/4, Burma Home Proceedings, 7 June 1973.

46 Ibid., 7 August 1873.

47 Ibid., 31 October 1873.

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

49 IOR, P/779, Burma Home Proceedings, 17 February 1876.

50 Gilman S. L. (1982). Seeing the Insane: A Cultural History of Madness and Art in the Western World, Wiley, New York.

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

52 Ibid., 7 August 1873.

53 Anderson, Legible Bodies.

54 Goffman E. (1990). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Penguin Books, London, pp. 6467.

55 IOR, P/7, Burma Home Proceedings, 17 February 1875.

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

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

58 Sen S. (2000). Disciplining Punishment: Colonialism and Convict Society in the Andaman Islands, Oxford University Press, New Dehli, pp. 131165.

59 IOR, P/4, Burma Home Proceedings, 7 August 1873.

60 RRLA, 1884.

61 RRLA, 1880.

62 Ewens G. F. W. (1908). Insanity in India: Its Symptoms and Diagnosis, with Reference to the Relation of Crime and Insanity, Thacker, Spink and Co., Calcutta, pp. 1618.

63 It was common for psychiatric discourses to overlap with racial ones in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Gilman S. L. (1985). Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race and Madness, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

64 RRLA, 1880.

65 Fielding-Hall H. (1899). The Soul of a People, 3rd Edition, Macmillan, London, p. 103.

66 Macdonald K. N. (1879). The Practice of Medicine Among the Burmese, Maclachlan, Edinburgh, pp. 1213.

67 For other examples of this trope see the books by other colonial scholar officials, Nisbet J. (1901). Burma Under British Rule—and Before, vol. 2, Constable, Westminster; Scott J. G. (1910). The Burman: His Life and Notions, 3rd Edition, Macmillan, London.

68 IOR, P/2, Burma Home Proceedings, 30 October 1871.

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, Stanford.

70 Ikeya C. (2005). The ‘Traditional’ High Status of Women in Burma, The Journal of Burma Studies, 10, 5181; Saha J. (2010). The Male State: Colonialism, Corruption and Rape Investigations in the Irrawaddy Delta c.1900, The Indian Economic Social History Review, 47:3, 343376.

71 Report on Criminal and Civil Justice in British Burma, for the Year 1870–71.

72 RRLA, 1883.

73 Showalter E. (1987). The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture 1830–1980, Virago, London.

74 IOR, P/1272, Burma Home Proceedings, 4 February 1879.

75 Ibid., 9 July 1879.

76 Charney, Modern Burma, pp. 22–28; Maxim, ‘The Resemblance in External Appearance’; Kaur A. (2006). Indian Labour, Labour Standards, and Workers’ Health in Burma and Malaya, 1900–1940, Modern Asian Studies, 40:2, 425475.

77 Mills, Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism, pp. 43–65.

78 Winzeler R. (1990). ‘Malayan Amok and Latah as “History Bound” syndromes’, in Rimmer P. J. and Allen L. M.The Underside of Malaysian History: The Pullers, Prostitutes, Plantation Workers, Nation University of Singapore Press, Singapore, pp. 214229; Williamson T. (2007). Communicating Amok in Malaysia, Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, 14:3, 341365; Ugarte E. F. (2002). ‘Qualifications Most Necessary to Rule’: The Amok in the Constriction of Filipino and American Identities, American Studies Asia, 1:1; Pols H. (2007). Psychological Knowledge in a Colonial Context: Theories on the Nature of the ‘Native Mind’ in the Former Dutch East Indies, History of Psychology, 10:2, 111131.

79 Rafael V. L. (1994). The Cultures of Area Studies in the United States, Social Text, 41, 91111.

80 Kolsky E. (2010). Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and the Rule of Law, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 126.

81 Bailkin J. (2005). Making Faces: Tattooed Women and Colonial Regimes, History Workshop Journal, 59:1, 3356; Peers D. M. (1998). Privates off Parade: Regimenting Sexuality in the Nineteenth-Century Indian Empire, The International History Review, 20:4, 823854; Ballhatchet K. A. (1980). Race, Sex and Class Under the Raj: Imperial Attitudes and Policies and Their Critics, 1793–1905, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London.

82 Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments, pp. 14–34; Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power.

83 Ernst W. (1997). Idioms of Madness and Colonial Boundaries: The Case of the European and ‘Native’ Mentally Ill in Early Nineteenth-Century British India, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 39:1, 153181.

84 Ernst W. (1991). Mad Tales from the Raj: The European Insane in British India, 1800–1858, Routledge, London; Mills, Madness, Cannabis and Colonialism.

85 It was not only the European population who were differentiated by medical knowledge, campaigns against syphilis where important in forming Kachin identities in colonial Burma: see, Sadan M. (2010). Syphilis and the Kachin Regeneration Campaigns, The Journal of Burma Studies, 14, 115150.

86 School of Oriental and African Studies Library, London, PPMS 14/16, Diaries of Sir Charles Stewart Addis, 12 September 1893.

87 Kipling R. (1994). The collected poems of Rudyard Kipling, Wordsworth Editions, Ware, pp. 413433.

88 Nisbet, Burma Under British Rule—and Before, vol. 2, pp. 251–252; Saha, The Male State, 351–354.

89 For example, the moral outrage at the presence of European barmaids serving Burmese and Indian customers, see Ballhatchet, Race, Sex and Class Under the Raj, pp. 137–140.

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, 210214. 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 York; and Szasz T. (1976). The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct, Harper and Row, New York.

95 For a case of a prisoner apparently going insane and killing a prison cook for poisoning his food see, IOR, P/4, Burma Home Proceedings, 3 June 1873. For some of the tensions over messing in prisons see, Arnold D. (1994). ‘The Colonial Prison: Power, Knowledge and Penology in Nineteenth-Century India’, in Arnold D. and Hardiman D.Subaltern Studies VIII: Essays in Honour of Ranajit Guha, Oxford University Press, Dehli, pp. 148187.

96 IOR, P/5, Burma Home Proceedings, 19 November 1873.

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, London; Hare S. (1904). Proportional Representation, Civil Service Co-operative Society, London.

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.

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.

116 Ireland W. W. (1886). The Blot on the Brain: Studies in History and Psychology, G. E. Putnam's Sons, New York.

117 Ireland W. W. (1889). Through the Ivory Gate: Studies in History and Psychology, Bell and Bradfute, Edinburgh.

118 Ibid., p. 304.

119 Ibid., pp. 310–311.

* 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.

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