Insanity and Imprisonment in British Guiana, 1814-1966

Clare Anderson, Kellie Moss, Estherine Adams


This paper explores links between incarceration and enslavement, migration, and mental health, in the colony of British Guiana. Contemporaries recognised the negative impact that mobility and labour had on the health and well-being of enslaved persons and Asian immigrants, including on plantations. Understandings of ‘insanity’ later developed to bring ideas about biology, context, and behaviour into dialogue, including through the racialisation of its prevalence and character amongst the colony’s diverse population. Before the construction of separate institutions, people who were believed to be suffering from mental illness were sometimes kept in jails, and due to a lack of capacity this continued even after lunatic asylums were developed from the 1840s. At the same time, colonial administrators recognised that incarceration itself could cause mental ill-health, and as such into the early twentieth century British Guiana engaged with global debates about criminal insanity.

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