The Journal of Caribbean History: Volume 42, Issue 2

Article 6
The Most Cruel and Revolting Crimes: The Treatment of the Mentally Ill in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Jamaica

Margaret Jones


In 1860 the appalling conditions that patients at the lunatic asylum in Kingston, Jamaica, endured came under public scrutiny. The most notorious of the “most cruel and revolting crimes” which were exposed was the practice of tanking – forcibly holding patients under water. Following the death of a patient, the matron and two nurses at the asylum were charged with manslaughter. Although they were acquitted by the jury, the case erupted into a public scandal. This article explores the insights that this shameful episode offers on Jamaica’s colonial past. First, it exposes the fractures between the Jamaican governing classes and the imperial government; second, it reveals the internal divisions within colonial society; and third, it highlights the low level of government commitment to the health of the Jamaican people. It concludes by suggesting that the conditions at the asylum were a legacy of slavery and thus looked back to that period; but it also argues that at the same time the scandal acted as a trigger to the metropolitan government to improve colonial hospitals throughout its empire.