Drapetomania and dysaesthesia aethiopica

Drapetomania and Dysaesthesia aethiopica are two diseases that, they say, have been discovered by nineteenth-century physician Samuel A. Cartwright. They are psychological disorders that only occur with slaves. According to Cartwright it was not normal for slaves to be dissatisfied or even running away. They were mentally ill. Although Cartwright's diseases are now classified as an absurd chapter in the history of psychodiagnostics, they show that normality and psychological abnormalities are two sides of the same coin. In a less pregnant - and in a less absurd - form, the relationship between normality and illness is still problematic in modern psychiatry and not free from moral judgments. It is therefore useful not to forget the absurd illnesses of Cartwright.


In an article called "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race", in 1851 the author Samuel Cartwright (1793-1864) describes two new disorders that he personally discovered. They are discussed here in two separate sections. The first had been known among practitioners for some time, but escaped the attention of scholars such as Cartwright himself. The name he chose for the condition was striking, at least for those who were powerful in Ancient Greek: drapetomania. The term was a combination of the two Greek words "drapetes" and "mania". Drapetes means something like "running slave" and mania was a common addition and meant something like "madness". Drapetomania was therefore a morbid sigh of a slave walking away. Indeed, a normal slave does not walk away and is satisfied with its existence. But not all slaves are normal according to Cartwright.
Like all diseases, Drapetomania was also characterized by a number of symptoms. An observant observer could recognize them for their own benefit before the slave actually ran away. The most important symptom was frequent evasion of compulsory work. Secondary symptoms included a certain moodiness or behavior that reflected general dissatisfaction.
As a good scientist, Cartwright investigated the circumstances in which the disease developed faster than in others. He found two. Both had to do with the way a slave owner treated his slaves. If he was too soft and had a tendency to regard his slaves as equal, there was an increased risk of drapetomania. But also a slave farmer who acted too hard and did not care for primary living conditions such as eating and sleeping, could face an increased number of cases of drapetomania.
Should the disease occur, then it was easy to treat. If the slave was grumpy for no reason or showed a great deal of dissatisfaction, it was best to beat it out with the whip. The slave would then quickly return to what was naturally hidden in his nature: serving the master.

Dysaesthesia aethiopica

The second disease, which, according to Cartwright, would only occur among black people, was characterized by partial skin insensitivity coupled with such a large mental lethargy that it seemed as if the person in question went half-asleep. A striking symptom of this abnormality was the existence of lesions to the body. These would always be present and were in itself sufficient to make the diagnosis. This disease would mainly occur in free black people, in other words, in liberated or escaped slaves. When black man was a slave, according to Cartwright's observations it was considerably less common.
According to Cartwright, there were doctors, mainly from the Abolitionist North of the US, who know this disease because of the circumstances in which the black people were. But he referred this argument to the realm of fables. The opposite would be the case, because the disease was less frequent among slaves. The damage to the skin, which, according to the same doctors from the North, were the result of the lashes that they often had to endure, were, according to Cartwright, really only a consequence of the disease itself.
The treatment was again fairly simple. The insensitivity of the skin could be combated by washing it and then treating it with oils. The oil had to be smashed in with a wide leather cloth. After that, the patient would thrive best by putting him or her to work hard in the sun.

Samuel Cartwright

It will not be a surprise; Samuel Cartwright was an avid supporter of slavery. The diseases he described can only be seen as a disease by someone for whom it is completely normal for a slave to accept his slave status. A normal slave thrives on hard work and under the strict discipline of a master. That is his natural habitat. Cartwright has arguments for that, although they sound as absurd today as his illnesses. It was generally known, Cartwright assumed, that the black people were descended from the people of Canaan, and that name meant nothing less than "submissive knee-bending". The fate of the black man was already ruled by this name. Moreover, as European research had shown, the physical constitution of a Negro was essentially different from that of a white man. Their blood was darker, and the "membranes, tendons and aponeuroses" that are so brilliantly white in the white human are spotty in the black human. All this justifies the conclusion that the black person is inferior to the white person and must conform to the will of the latter, and naturally wants to.
Samuel A. Cartwright / Source: Cyborg Ninja, Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The Cartwright lesson

Nowadays, nobody needs to be convinced of the utter absurdity of Cartwright's ideas. Already in the time of Cartwright itself there was fierce protest and no official diagnostic handbook ever recorded Cartwright's diseases. From that perspective, the Cartwright affair can be seen as a small footnote in the annals of history. A footnote without major consequences, at least not for the current time.
Still, Cartwright's diseases are memorable. They show in a very pregnant way to which aberrations certain ideas about normality can lead. Certainly with wisdom afterwards this is clear. Cartwright's diseases could only be considered as diseases from his perspective on what a normal slave is. Not only that. The deviations were also traced to the constitution of the black man and in particular to that of the deviant black man. Reducing psychological ailments to personal characteristics - and not so much as a response to the environment in which a person lives - is still one of the dominant characteristics of modern psychodiagnostics. In that sense, Cartwright does not differ from a modern psychiatrist. The latter will no longer be tempted by the absurd depths that Cartwright has achieved, but formally speaking, the working method of the modern psychodiagnostic is not that different from that of Cartwright.
Much criticism of psychiatric diagnosis in time after Cartwright focuses precisely on these two characteristics: the conversion to personal characteristics and the often implicit determination of what is considered normal. Cartwright echoes, for example, can also be found in the controversy surrounding homosexuality. Homosexuality was not removed from the textbooks (in particular DSM) until the 1970s. The norm of heterosexuality only then, at least partially, disappeared.
Discussions about diagnostics often have a serious academic tone. The importance of Cartwright is that, in spite of it, he has shown that diagnostics is not only dependent on prevailing views about normality, but that in some cases it also leads to degrading human consequences. Psychodiagnostics, in other words, is not a board game; it can have a profound influence on people's lives, part of which is determined by visions, sometimes of a moral nature, on what a normal person is.

Video: Drapetomania and Dysaesthesia Aethiopica (February 2020).

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