The Diseased and Peculiar Science of Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright (Dysaesthesia Aethiopica)

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

(Previous in the series: IntroductionOverviewOn SpeciesPeculiaritiesMore PeculiaritiesPeculiar BrainsPeculiar Blood, Tiedemann on Brains, Tiedemann on Nerves, Drapetomania. Full text of Cartwright’s paper can be found here in three parts on pages 64, 209, 331 and with a response to critics on page 504. The full text of Tiedemann’s paper here as a PDF.)

Drapetomania rolls off the tongue and fits with what most laypeople, this random guy on the internet included, think the name of a mental illness ought to sound. It shares the same lexical space with pyromania, kleptomania, and other maladies that live in the common consciousness long after their formal names changed and changed again. Dysaesthesia Aethiopica does not. I confess that each time I type it, I double-check the spelling. But the diagnosis tells us still more about how Cartwright, and by extension others, viewed slaves. In this case especially, Cartwright refers to the extensive experience of owners and overseers with the malady, which they called “rascality.”

Dysaesthesia Aethiopica, the disease of lacking work ethic, has the distinction among mental illnesses of clear physical symptoms visible to casual observation. Cartwright says

It differs from every other species of mental disease, as it is accompanied with physical signs or lesions of the body discoverable to the medical observer, which are always present and sufficient to account for its symptoms.

I have no doubt that slaves with visible sores did not work quite so hard as slaves without. Sick people don’t generally have enormous reserves of energy as their body’s resources go into fighting their illness or mending their wounds. Malnutrition impairs the immune system and leaves one more vulnerable to illness as well. But Cartwright treats lesions as something that just happens. One wonders how many the slaves he observed acquired those lesions from the lash.

One must concede the point, though. A sick or beaten slave probably did not work quite the same energy or diligence that a slave in better health and enjoying better treatment would demonstrate. What human being would, excepting moments when one tries to forestall another beating?

While he pronounces the lesions sufficient for diagnosis, Cartwright lists additional symptoms:

From the careless movements of the individuals affected with the complaint, they are apt to do much mischief, which appears as if intentional, but is mostly owning to the stupidness of mind and insensibility of the nerves induced by the disease. Thus, they break, waste and destroy everything they handle, -abuse horses and cattle,- tear or burn or rend their own clothing, and, paying no attention to the rights of property, steal others, to replace what they have destroyed. […] They slight their work, -cut up corn, cane, cotton or tobacco when hoeing it, as if for pure mischief.

Why, they act like people in a terrible situation trying to resist it! How does one cure such a horrible condition? Cartwright prescribes having

the patient well washed with warm water and soap, then, to anoint it all over with oil, and to slap the oil in with a broad leather strap; then to put the patient to some kind of hard work in the open air and sunshine, that will compel him to expand his lungs, as chopping wood, splitting rails, or sawing with the cross-cut or whip saw.

In other words, the cure involves washing open wounds, beating with a leather strap, and then working the slave hard. Cartwright does allow, however, that when putting the slave to hard labor under the hot sun as part of the cure an owner should allow the occasional cool drink.

But an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure:

Slaves are not subject to this disease, unless they are permitted to live like free negroes, in idleness and filth-to eat improper food or indulge in spiritous liquors. It is not their masters’ interest that they should do so; as they would not only be unprofitable, but as great a nuisance to the South as the free negroes were found to be in London, whom the British government, more than half a century ago, colonized in Sierra Leone to get them out of the way.

That theme runs through Cartwright’s entire piece: nothing good can possibly come of treating black people like people. They must remember their place and be put in it. He makes no bones about the fact:

According to my experience, the “genu flexit” -the awe and reverence, must be exacted from them, or they will despite their masters, become rude and ungovernable, and run away.

Slaves benefits so much from slavery, Cartwright would have us believe, that one must drag compliance out of them and medicate resistance with the lash.

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