Monday, August 24, 2015

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“MIGRATION, ETHNICITY, AND MADNESS – New Zealand 1860-1910” by Angela McCarthy (Otago University Press, $NZ45)

There are three photographs in Angela McCarthy’s Migration, Ethnicity and Madness which I find quite haunting and a little disturbing.
The first is the cover photograph, reproduced in sepia tones. It shows fourteen women, apparently dressed identically, standing on a lawn in front of what looks like a baronial palace. Their long white skirts make them resemble dolls. It could be something created by a surrealist photographer. In fact, it is a photograph, taken some time around 1900, of the female nursing staff of Dunedin’s Seacliff lunatic asylum.
The second (on p.67) reproduces a page from the doctor’s casebook of a woman incarcerated in the asylum in 1898. She believed herself to be a prophetess communing with God. The document includes a small photograph of her looking heavenwards with her arms upraised, obviously caught in the act of being a prophetess. One wonders what torments flooded her mind.
But the third is to me the most shocking. On p.31 there is a photo of the old Dunedin lunatic asylum, built in 1863 and then superseded in 1879 by the palatial-looking Seacliff. Not only does the old asylum of the 1860s look grim and barrack-like, but it is also large enough to make you wonder that there were so many certified lunatics in the very small town that colonial Dunedin was at that time.  Definitions of madness have changed. Perhaps some of the people who spent time there suffered from ailments that would no longer lead to their being institutionalised. Even so, it is a surprisingly large institution for such a small community. And Seacliff, consciously designed by its architect in a grand Scottish style, was much larger.
Angela McCarthy is Professor of Scottish and Irish History at the University of Otago. Most of her work has centred on patterns of Scots and Irish migration to New Zealand in the nineteenth century. Migration, Ethnicity and Madness is a book about those immigrants, between 1860 and 1910, who spent time in New Zealand lunatic asylums. In a way, then, its story of madness is a sub-set of the story of migration. McCarthy wants “studies of madness to be located within diasporic, transnational and comparative frameworks” (p.8) – in other words, she is concerned with how ethnic groups of the mentally-afflicted (Scots, Irish and others) interacted with their wider migrant ethnic community; with how doctors and superintendents in New Zealand exchanged ideas with those overseas; and with how the treatment of the mentally-ill in New Zealand compared with British, Australian and other experience.   
Migration, Ethnicity and Madness is the product of much research in British and New Zealand archives and in the surviving records of mental hospitals and psychiatric institutions. But the core research materials are the casebooks that were kept at Seacliff, many of them written by Frederic Truby King, medical superintendent of the asylum from 1889 to 1921. These casebooks comment on the origin of each patient, the supposed causes of the mental affliction, and sometimes the family history. They record the patient’s self-image, but also his or her ethnicity and background.
As McCarthy explains in her long introduction, there were then  “colonial discourses about racial difference” (p.8), which made “alienists” (asylum doctors) make assumptions about why people became insane. There were also competing theories about the causes of insanity among colonists.  One theory had to do with the ageing of the population:
The consequences arising from the transformation of colonial society and the way in which migration from one place to another played a pivotal role in the admission of some patients to asylums … sparked [parliamentary] comment: ‘In the early years of our history we had no old people. All were young and buoyant. Now the pioneers are old, many of them prematurely, from exposure and other causes incidental to the life of colonial communities.’ Such causes included hereditary and congenital insanity, drink, masturbation and religion, and these were…. subject to statistical comparison across the various provincial asylums.” (pp.37-38)
Another theory considered the trauma of settling in an unfamiliar country:
 “Contemporary observers emphasised that the expectations held by migrants, many of whom ‘form the most extravagant anticipations of their new home, and are proportionately depressed by the result of actual experience’, may certainly have played a role in mental ill health.” (p.115)
After first considering the different legislation that covered lunatic asylums in England, Ireland, Scotland and New Zealand, and the way patients were admitted and discharged (Chapter 1), McCarthy moves on in Chapters 2 and 3 to the constant fear that lunatics were being deliberately shipped to the colonies to prevent their being a financial burden on British parishes. There is indeed some evidence of this, and also of families getting rid of insane relatives by shoving them across the globe. “Physicians…. suspected families of sending insane relatives abroad during lucid intervals.” (p.87) Colonial New Zealand immigration officials worried that people with hereditary diseases were slipping into the country. There was the constant puzzle of why the Irish were so over-represented among the certified insane. And every so often schemes would be mooted to repatriate undesirables back to Britain.
Some speculated that the long voyage out to New Zealand exacerbated insanity among the unstable, what with sunstroke, homesickness, loneliness or the death of a child. While separation from family and homeland may have caused some depression and instability, it has to be noted that other mental patients arrived in New Zealand with family and with a network of connections. Indeed, McCarthy is sometimes at pains to contradict Miles Fairburn’s “atomisation” theory of New Zealand colonial society by noting (Chapter 4) that insanity often flourished in a family context in New Zealand, and that members of a patient’s immediate family were often recorded as the patient’s most frequent visitors.
In Britain there were, consistently, more women than men in insane asylums; whereas in New Zealand there were more men than women. There is no mystery about this, however, as the gender imbalance in New Zealand hospitals reflected the gender imbalance in New Zealand as a whole at that time.
After dealing with the “transnational ties to home” (chap.5), both in doctors’ professional connections with overseas colleagues, and in patients who pined for Britain, McCarthy turns, in her last chapter, to those matters most closely connected with ethnicity. Despite the widespread “scientific racism” of the age, and despite the fact that British asylums were racially segregated, New Zealand asylums were open to all races. Nevertheless, New Zealand doctors were still very likely to interpret damaged mental conditions in terms of ethnicity and culture. McCarthy finds in doctors’ notes and casebooks frequent references to race when doctors are diagnosing Irish or Chinese or Scots patients.  There were comments on the food-choices of non-English patients and an assumption that the cultural background has aggravated a mental condition. No such ethnic notes are ever made about English or Australian patients. They are, in effect, assumed to be the “norm” of humanity.
It is clear that occasionally there were racially- and ethnically-based tensions between patients, with examples given of Pakeha violence against Chinese, clashes between Maori and Pakeha, and some clashes between Catholic and Protestant. However, McCarthy’s conclusion suggests that the worst thing New Zealand asylums did to non-English patients was to judge them as if their culture itself was a mental aberration.
Migration, Ethnicity and Madness is the first book-length study of this New Zealand topic and adds nuance to our history. It is only fair to warn, however, that this is an academic study and not light reading. It is concerned to verify and cross-reference information, and while lively anecdotes do appear (often in the quoted casebooks) they are not the book’s focus.
One thing I applaud heartily – the decision to present added information in footnotes rather than endnotes. It makes it much easier to check sources and related material.

1 comment:

  1. Your review of 'Migration, Ethnicity, and Madness' reminded me of a 2013 book 'The story within: personal essays on genetics and identity' by Amy Boesky. The stories included one from Patrick Tracey: Followed a news item pointing to schizophrenia inherited from the hardships of the potato famines in Ireland. Researchers found that decades of hardship had seen a population’s DNA grow to include the mental illness – so much so it has been passed down through the generations, no matter where in the world the Irish diaspora ends up.