Drapetomania – Freedom the Sickness

In 1851 the prominent American physician Samuel Adolphus Cartwright observed black slaves that fled captivity, and saw an illness. “Drapetomania, or the disease causing Negroes to flee” was the title to his paper explaining that black slaves didn’t want freedom, if they escaped they were ill. The cause was masters who treated slaves as something close to human beings, and slaves who considered themselves to be individuals of worth. Freedom was an illness, and Cartwright had the cure.

If a slave becomes “sulky and dissatisfied without reason,” then they may have drapetomania and be about to flee. Cartwright recommended “whipping the devil out of them” until they became submissive again, the state to which they belonged. An alternative remedy was to make running away impossible by having the big toe from both feet severed. Hence curing the disease.

Looking at it from what is technically “the future” we can easily see that something strange is afoot here. Instead of treating black slaves a people, Cartwright assumed that the place of a slave, was to remain a slave. He used the bible as evidence, taking sections talking about the faithfulness of a servant to master to justify his assertions that slaves should be treated as little more than children. Children to be whipped that is. This viewpoint led him to make some suspect, pseudoscientific contributions to the body of scientific racism. He even believed that lazy saves weren’t upset, they too were ill.

Dysaesthesia aethiopica, or “rascality” as it was referred to by slave owners explained the apparent lack of will to work shown by slaves. This mental illness was unique though, in that it had physical symptoms shown on the body. A decreased level of skin sensitivity and lesions across the body were present in all the cases of rascality. Cartwright ignored the possibility that “whipping the devil out of them” had caused this, and came up with a resourceful cure for the disease.

The best means to stimulate the skin is, first, to have the patient well washed with warm water and soap; then, to anoint it all over in oil, and to slap the oil in with a broad leather strap; then to put the patient to some hard kind of work in the sunshine.

Whipping for the whipped.

The medical association of Louisiana found his case to be reasonable and his findings were published in Debow’s review and widely circulated. The Southern United States agreed with his findings and slaves felt the results. In the Northern United States his “findings” were ridiculed in the northern united states. Frederick Law Olmsted even published a counter paper pointing to evidence that white indentured slaves had escaped from captivity, jokingly suggesting that drapetomania was a white European disease that traders had introduced to Africa.

The reason for the split opinion across those United States was a product of the time. The southern united states wanted slavery to continue and help fuel their booming cotton industry. The northern united states stood to benefit less from the continuation of slavery and claimed it was damaging to humanity. Back then, as now, people performed poor, biased science to create false evidence to back their viewpoints. Then came a most uncivil war.

Afterwards came some freedom, and an epidemic of drapetomania the likes of which the United States had never seen.

Further Reading

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