The European slave owners profited handsomely from the labor of enslaved Africans in the cotton and tobacco fields on southern plantations.
With cries for the abolition of the heinous conduct becoming louder, southern slave owners fearful of losing large sums of money, power, and staff invented pseudo-science to explain why slaves attempted to flee.
Many African-American slaves were eager to run and attain freedom because they were treated as property with no rights. Given that they were hungry, beaten indiscriminately, raped at will, and saw their children murdered on a whim, it’s reasonable for any person to desire to avoid such a dreadful situation, but in the ostensibly free land of the United States, individuals justified having slaves.
Slaves, in the eyes of their lords, were put on this earth to serve; in exchange, they were given food, clothing, and housing. They couldn’t understand why people tried to flee to freedom.
Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, a Louisiana surgeon and psychologist, published a study on ailments affecting the black population of the South in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal in 1851. ”Drapetomania,” or “the disease that causes slaves to flee,” was one of the diseases Dr. Cartwright described.
“He thought he’d uncovered a legitimate explanation for this unsettling longing to be free of servitude,” the southern physician said. He coined the term “drapetomania” (which roughly translates to “runaway slave” and “mad”) to describe this mental illness, assuring slaveowners that it was completely curable by “whipping the devil” out of the slaves who suffered from it. Because “the Creator’s intention in regard to the negro [declares] him to be a servile knee-bender,” Cartwright believed drapetomania was a psychological condition.
“Intriguingly, Cartwright blamed indulgent masters for the beginning of this sickness, claiming that if “the white man strives to oppose the Deity’s plan” by treating his slaves even near to equals, the natural order will be disrupted, causing the slaves to suffer mental illness.”
”In the vast majority of cases, the cause of the negro’s refusal to serve is as much a mental illness as any other form of mental alienation, and far more curable. Dr. Cartwright said that “with the advantages of appropriate medical counsel, which is properly followed, this bothersome practice of many blacks of running away can be almost entirely avoided.”
Cartwright’s piece was extensively criticized and satirized throughout the northern United States in the immediate aftermath of its publication. Southerners, on the other hand, believed the pseudoscience that led to reprints.
Cartwright’s theory was mocked in an issue of the “Buffalo Medical Journal and Monthly Review of Medical and Surgical Science” published in 1855.
The third edition of Thomas Lathrop Stedman’s Practical Medical Dictionary, published in 1914, featured an entry for drapetomania, which was defined as “Vagabondage, dromomania; an uncontrollable or crazy impulsion to wander.”
”The culture determines what you consider pathology,” says Alvin Poussaint, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Slavery, according to Cartwright, was the standard. So he labeled slaves who departed from the norm as mentally ill. Culture and politics play a role in determining what is normal and what is abnormal. It isn’t rocket science.”