Histories of colonial medical institutions are often heavily reliant upon government reports. My own work on the Rangoon Lunatic Asylum in the nineteenth century uses them extensively to tease out the colonial state’s priorities in treating “insanity”. But in conducting this analysis, I did not conceptualize the audience for the reports beyond the ranks of the administration. I had not considered the fact that these were published reports, available to the public.
Reading articles in Thūriya, a prominent anti-colonial newspaper that ran from 1911, I spotted a lead article on the colony’s lunatic asylums published in June 1916.
Intrigued, on and off over the last couple of weeks I’ve spent my commute to work translating it so that I could compare it to the original report to see how the text was being engaged with.
When went back to what I deduced was the original source, the Note on the Lunatic Asylums in Burma for the Year 1915 (Rangoon, 1916), it was both heartening and, slightly, disappointing. The article in Thūriya was, pretty much, a direct translation of the Note. What I had read contained no editorializing or additional comments. So on the one hand I was heartened that my translation of the Burmese text was accurate. But on the other I was disappointed that there was no anti-colonial re-framing of the Note for me to pick apart.
Nevertheless, there are couple of things that I think might be interesting about the report and the reporting of the report. Firstly, it’s notable that the original official report is itself very brief. By the early twentieth century the once rich, long, and occasionally rambling, asylum reports had been limited to a two page note every year feeding into a triennial report, which was itself also perfunctory in comparison to the nineteenth-century reports. Secondly, it’s interesting that Thūriya wanted to republish it in Burmese to make it available to a wider audience. In its early years in particular, the newspaper regularly printed summaries of government reports prominently, especially where they exposed some societal problem that suggested the colony’s underdevelopment.
Was there a connection between these two things? Certainly published asylum reports (and other annual governmental reports) became less candid, and more structured and concise over the same period that vernacular newspapers took off across British India. Was the colonial state aware, or perhaps wary, of this new reading public? It’s not certain. Either way, thinking about how the colonial authors of these reports may have imagined their readers is critical to analyzing them.