Joy and insanity in British India

I’m currently working to put 20,000 pages of Lunatic Asylums reports from British India online.
Over the next few months the Digital Archive team at the NLS will be checking metadata which accompanies each page, preparing jpegs and exporting database records into XML. My job is to keep track of this and also to research the reports for text to accompany the collection once it is online.
Nisha Munogee, a Strathclyde student who interned at the NLS last summer, has already written most of it; I’m adding some extra bits as the Lunatic Asylum reports is one of my favourite collections. Packed with statistics and incredible detail, these volumes reveal how mental illness was treated in British India. The causes of insanity were, for most of the second half of the 19th century, divided into two main groups, physical and moral.
Physical causes included narcotic drug use, epilepsy, fever, concussion, privation (deprivation) and over-study. Grief, love and jealousy, disgrace, fear, religion and vicious habit were listed as moral causes (Madras, 1882-83).

Treatment of patients (typically called lunatics or insanes until around the 1920s)emphasised “occupation, out-door exercises, good food, occasional recreation and at all times careful supervision.” (1881-82, W.R. Cornish, Surgeon-General, Madras).
Occupations consisted mostly of gardening and growing food, making mats and baskets, pressing oil for income generation, plus upkeep of asylum grounds and clothing.

Medicinal remedies are few, as A.N. Rogers Harrison wrote in 1881: “Little specific value is attached to the curative properties of medicines…however, opium and its derivatives, bromide of potassium, hydrate of chloral…together with counter-irritation and the cold and tepid baths are all remedies that have proved of distinct service.”

The image of a chained or straight-jacketed Victorian inmate is dispelled when reading these reports. Indeed, “There is no restraint during the day, however violent the patient may be; these are simply watched. At night the noisy, violent, filthy are placed in cells by themselves.” (H.D. Cook, 1881)

Funds were set aside for amusements, as in 1882 Madras: “At Christmas there was the usual treat, with sport, fireworks and a band. If this concentrated joy were distributed through the year, it would do more good. Native music, sweets, jugglers and a few fireworks once a month would, at a cheap rate, give pleasure to many.” (S.L. Dobie)

I’m very excited to start 2012 with such a rich resource as this. When it’s online users will be able to:

– recreate the buildings and chart the expansion of asylums;
– use the many statistical tables and comments to build up a demographic, medical and financial picture of different asylums in Indian provinces;
– find out how the native insanes were housed and treated, how they came to be in the asylum, plus how, when or if they left;
– investigate the experience of the European insane in India;
– track the nomenclature of mental illness and how this changed over time.

Many volumes span 1860s to 1930s, allowing researchers to chart a particular asylum or province through 60 or 70 years.

(picture credit: Wellcome Images, showing Lawrence Asylum, Ootakamund, Madras (1873))