Animals in the Asylum

Last week I presented a paper as part of a panel on the history of lunatic asylums at the European Association of Southeast Asian Studies’ annual conference, hosted by the University of Vienna. It was the first time that I had returned to the subject of colonial psychiatry since I completed the research for my article on the topic back in 2008. Researching for this new paper, I went back through the reports of colonial Burma’s lunatic asylums between the years 1878 and 1925—if you’d like to read them yourself, they’ve been digitized by the National Library of Scotland, along with many other official reports on medicine in British India. I also went back through my old notes.

Unlike seven years ago, this time I noticed that as well as being perpetually overcrowded with human inmates—mostly Indian ‘vagrants’ and Burmese ‘criminal lunatics’, as well as a range of minority ethnic peoples and Europeans—the asylum was home to many non-human creatures. The asylum in Rangoon had a dairy with between twenty and sixty cows and calves, and usually one or two bulls. The Minbu Asylum—opened in old jail buildings in 1906 to ease overcrowding in Rangoon—had two bullocks. There were birds that lived in the disappearing woodland around the Rangoon Asylum. During some years these were shot and sold by the asylum management, but their numbers declined quickly. The asylum also ran a small poultry farm. In addition, there were some less visible and more unwelcome beastly cohabitants. Bed bugs occasionally make an appearance in the reports, and some creatures were smaller still. After a little laboratory was started in the Rangoon Asylum in 1916, investigations of human inmates’ stool samples revealed thriving populations of amoeba, round worms, thread worms and whip worms. These insects and microscopic parasites were no doubt long term residents in the asylum given the cramped conditions that the institutions’ ‘packed mass of humanity’ lived in—as the superintendent referred to the inmates in the 1919 report. And these are only the animals that were mentioned in the reports. More must have gone unnoticed or without comment. Mosquitoes, rodents and perhaps even stray dogs were probably present in the asylum, given their almost ubiquitous presence in colonial Rangoon.

A plan of the asylum from 1893. Curiously the dairy and the cow sheds are not marked raising questions over where the animals were kept.
A plan of the asylum from 1893. Curiously the dairy and the cow sheds are not marked raising questions over where the animals were kept.

In the notes that I had originally made on the asylum reports, I had not written one word on animals. I couldn’t even remember having read about them in the reports before, but I must have. Revisiting the subject for this paper revealed to me the blinkers that I must have had on when I read the reports the first time around, blinkers that made the non-humans invisible. Now that my wider focus has shifted to the animal, these blinkers have gone. As a result, I found that I could tell new stories about the spread of disease, medical regimes, economic management, and everyday life in the asylum using sources that I once thought I had exhausted.

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