Stark roving mad : the repatriation of Nigerian mental patients and the global construction of mental illness, 1906-1960

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2008-05

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Heaton, Matthew M.

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This dissertation examines the repatriation of Nigerian mental patients during Nigeria’s colonial period. In so doing, it explores how racist and paternalistic definitions of the “African mind” developed in the colonial context implicitly influenced psychiatric and governmental officials’ opinions about whether or not Nigerian mental patients should be repatriated when they became mentally ill abroad. When analyzing files of repatriation cases, a distinct pattern emerges: psychiatric and governmental authorities nearly always justified the repatriation of Nigerian mental patients from what they considered “modern” countries with white majority populations such as the United Kingdom or the United States. Nigerian mental patients in these countries were almost always repatriated. The same types of authorities, however, never argued for the repatriation of Nigerians from what they regarded as “primitive” African colonies. Mental patients within Africa, including Muslim pilgrims on the journey to Mecca, were almost never repatriated to Nigeria. The examination of such a wide range of mentally-ill Nigerian migrants from across the globe allows for a new perspective on the power of colonial psychiatry to emerge. Whereas scholarly works on mental illness in colonial Africa thus far have focused overwhelmingly on the effect that definitions of the “African mind” had on Africans within the colonial setting, specifically the colonial mental asylum, this dissertation analyzes how these same definitions affected the terms under which Nigerian migrants lived beyond the asylum setting and throughout the world. The result was a global construction of mental illness that followed colonial subjects wherever they went. This dissertation therefore integrates the fields of African history and global history by focusing on a subject group that was transnational in nature. In so doing, it illustrates the broad parameters within which the psychiatric knowledge and state power influenced each other at an international level and expands the discourse of African resistance to racialized psychiatry to the global arena in ways that previous works have not discussed.

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