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Dysfunctional diasporas?

November 30, 2014

Migration and mental illness – by Marjory Harper

Migrants about to set sail, saying goodbye at the Glasgow docks. After Henry O’Neil, 1891. Wellcome Images

Migrants about to set sail, saying goodbye at the Glasgow docks. After Henry O’Neil, 1891. Wellcome Images

When 31-year-old Malcolm was admitted to the Royal Asylum at Gartnavel in Glasgow in October 1859, on the petition of his mother, his previous occupations were listed as “seaman, gold-digger, merchant, and clerk”. At the time of admission he was declared to be “of unsound mind, and suffering under a severe attack of brain disorder” which manifested itself in incoherence and delusions. He was, moreover, the asylum register warned, “very dangerous”. Eight months later, however, Malcolm was discharged, “recovered”, and left almost immediately for Australia, “with the intent of advancing himself in life, but without any settled plan”. It was not his first experience overseas: during an earlier sojourn in America he had first received private psychiatric treatment, before returning to Glasgow to the care of his family and subsequently the custody of the Royal Asylum. Shortly after arriving in Melbourne in 1860, Malcolm corresponded briefly with his brother, a bush missionary, and the two arranged to meet. That rendezvous did not take place, and Malcolm was never heard of again.

Malcolm’s illness may have had hereditary roots, since both his late father and subsequently one of his sisters had been detained in the Royal Edinburgh Asylum. But his unfinished story also demonstrates the phenomenon of the dysfunctional diaspora, notably the perceived relationship between intercontinental migration and insanity across the British world, which was well documented in investigative reports, institutional records and legislation, not least by the bureaucratic infrastructure that underpinned the imperial enterprise. That rich seam of evidence has been mined intermittently by historians in recent decades, but until now has not been scrutinised within a comparative multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary context.

At the heart of recent research is a strategy to integrate historical studies with the scholarship of psychiatrists, theologians, lawyers, sociologists, anthropologists, policy makers and literary specialists. The strategy will be implemented initially through two symposia, in Halifax (Nova Scotia) and Aberdeen. The Halifax event will root the study of mental health issues within the much wider context of medicine and migration to Canada since the 19th century, harnessing topics of historical exploration to analogous and ongoing contemporary debates. It will bring together historians with current policy makers and practitioners in order to explore continuities and changes of attitude and experience in areas such as immigration policy and public health, migration and communicable diseases, child migration, detention and deportation, and the recruitment of immigrants as health professionals. The Aberdeen conference will turn the spotlight more exclusively on mental health issues in historical and contemporary contexts, evaluating triggers and treatments through a variety of complementary disciplinary lenses. The project is in its infancy, so these multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary bridges still need to be built.

My own interest – which arose initially out of long-standing scrutiny of the 19th- and 20th-century British diaspora – is on the causes and consequences of insanity among immigrants to Canada in the half-century from Confederation to World War I. I have developed some preliminary hypotheses about causation, based primarily on the records of the British Columbia Provincial Asylum for the Insane in New Westminster.

What were the catalysts for mental breakdown among migrants? And can we demonstrate anything more than circumstantial evidence of a link between migration and insanity? The central question is whether the phenomenon was attributable to an inherent restlessness that had spawned the decision to migrate in the first place, or whether it was triggered by the traumatic repercussions of relocation. The reports of immigration officials in the host lands, and the gatekeeping policies they adopted, tended to emphasise the former, while the case notes of asylums incorporated pre-migration background factors within a much wider analysis of environment and experiences in the new country. Sub-themes to ponder in addressing causation include the relevance of gender, occupation and religion, as well as ethnicity. How did the proportions of different ethnicities in asylums relate to their presence in the population of Canada as a whole? Did the proportions of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish patients reflect their distribution across the British Isles? How did perceptions of mental illness among migrants to Canada compare with diagnoses and aetiologies in other parts of the British world? And did theories of causation change over time, both within medical circles and in society at large?

Migrant diaries, letters and memoirs are dotted with recollections of traumatic transitions from old to new worlds: the dilemmas of decision making, the pain of parting, and the discomforts of the journey. In most cases the difficulties were short-lived or manageable, but asylum records occasionally indicate that they were catalysts for mental breakdown. Mrs C from Edinburgh, for instance, who was admitted to the British Columbia asylum in 1890, fell ill, according to her case notes, because of “indisposition and the long trip from Scotland to BC”, during which she had taken opium and attempted suicide. A bad voyage experience was by no means confined to transatlantic travellers: in Angela McCarthy’s sample of foreign-born patients who were admitted to Dunedin’s public asylum within a year of arriving in New Zealand, 8 per cent were said to have been affected deleteriously by the long voyage.

Disappointed expectations feature particularly prominently in migrant testimony and asylum records alike. While these setbacks were often related to work, wages or living standards, they sometimes involved more inflated notions.

Malcolm, whose insanity was first manifested in America, presumably the location of the gold-digging episode in his patchwork of employments, may have been lured to Australia by the Victorian gold fields. We might speculate that both his initial breakdown and his subsequent disappearance were partly a consequence of his failure to find the anticipated El Dorado in either land. Across the world, some of the most disillusioned migrants in the 19th century must have been the restless prospectors who travelled in a vain quest for gold. Not surprisingly, British Columbia was a major magnet, with the Cariboo discoveries of the 1860s and the Klondike stampede three decades later. Just over 6 per cent of the 1,110 patients admitted to the BC asylum between 1872 and 1900 were described as “miners” or “prospectors”, many of whom had delusions about being robbed of their claims. One Scottish miner claimed to have made over $40,000 from gold mining in the Cariboo, and a Welsh patient was described as a “monomaniac on the subject of gold”.

Disappointed expectations were exacerbated by the isolation and extreme climate of the Klondike, but environmental disillusionment was not the preserve of prospectors who moiled in the extractive industries of the BC frontier. It is hoped that the current project will in due course incorporate analyses from asylums in other parts of Canada, not least the prairies and the Maritimes. Many prairie settlers bewailed the featureless monotony of their surroundings, and when the Countess of Aberdeen visited the infant Hebridean settlement at Killarney in Manitoba in 1890, she was repelled by the “inexpressible dreariness of these everlasting prairies” where “the struggle to live has swallowed up all the energy”. Across the border, the Norwegian novelist O E Rölvaag charted the descent into insanity of a pioneer settler’s wife as the family’s wagon train moved westwards “beyond the outposts of civilization” across the infinite, formless prairie which “had no heart that beat, no waves that sang, no soul that could be touched – or cared”. Similarly, on the other side of the world, “secluded life on a station” was blamed for the illness of a Scottish shepherd who became a long-term patient at the Sunnyside Asylum in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1851.

Of course, none of these factors operated unilaterally. Unfulfilled expectations, loneliness and an alien environment could trigger or exacerbate homesickness, which, in extreme cases, could lead to mental illness. Although admission registers did not articulate the problem in those terms, it was clearly evident in correspondence, which highlights another theme and provides a bridge to the second strand of the research agenda – for relatives, doctors and politicians did not speak with one voice about either the causes or the treatment of mental illness.

Heredity was the main bone of contention. It was, as we have seen, a possible factor in the illness of Malcolm the gold digger, and it was cited in over 6 per cent of admissions to the British Columbia asylum. Britain was accused of exporting migrants who were already of “unsound mind”, and doctors and policy makers across the dominions collected evidence of previous hospitalisation or hereditary insanity. But some families hotly disputed such stigmatisation, as we see in the case of a man called Richard, who was sent from the Klondike to the BC Provincial Hospital in 1900. A diagnosis of paranoia elicited an indignant letter from his father in Hertfordshire, who challenged the Medical Superintendent: “What were the circumstances that caused the authorities to charge him with insanity? … I may say for your guidance there has never been any insanity in our family… I am much inclined to judge he has been the victim of an outrage”.

In 1894 Jane, a nurse-maid, was admitted briefly to the BC asylum, suffering – according to the accompanying medical certificates – from “religious mania”. She was upset about a recent schism in the Free Church of Scotland and maintained that “until one of her own people from her own country comes to talk to her in Gaelic nothing will be right”. And when a man called Kenneth was admitted to the same institution 13 years later, one of his certificates reported that he “talks and shrieks in Gaelic continuously. Will not answer any questions, nor talk in English, merely yells in Gaelic”. With these exceptions, the BC asylum records examined to date did not discuss patients’ maladies with any reference to their ethnicity. This is notably different from documentation in New Zealand, where Angela McCarthy has demonstrated a very clear thread of ethnic stereotyping in both medical reports and official returns from the same era. The absence of ethnic labelling in the BC asylum records is surprising, particularly in the eugenics-dominated decade before World War I, when Canadian commentators frequently asserted that weak-minded immigrants from Britain were polluting their society and draining their economy: an article in the University Monthly in 1908, for instance, asserted that a preponderance of “English defectives” in the admission registers of Toronto’s asylums was a consequence of “the wholesale cleaning out of the slums of English cities”. Further research in the asylum records of other provinces may confirm or contradict the BC approach, but that is a question for another day.

Deportation, meanwhile, was the favoured sanction against all types of unacceptable immigrants, and Canada’s record in deporting them was, according to the labour historian Irving Abella, “by far the worst in the entire British Commonwealth”. Immigrants deemed to be mentally or physically defective were always at the top of the list, and as well as investigating the emphasis on deportation of the “insane” and “feeble-minded” per se, we need to consider whether such definitions may sometimes have been deployed disingenuously, to justify decisions that were made on the grounds of immigrants’ political or social unacceptability. Regrettably, significant gaps in official record keeping make it impossible to conduct rigorous quantitative analysis or to correlate references to the deportation of patients found in Canadian provincial asylum case files with federal deportation orders for those same individuals. It remains the case that patients and families often had a different perspective from the gatekeeping and firefighting priorities of administrators and doctors. Correspondence in case files can offer significant insights, and these sources, along with a variety of official paper trails, provide us with sufficient evidence for a meaningful exploration of the consequences – as well as the causes – of insanity among Canada’s immigrant population between Confederation and World War I.

Professor Marjory Harper is based at the University of Aberdeen, where her research interests focus on Scottish emigration in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly to Canada, and more widely the British diaspora experiences worldwide. She welcomes enquiries (


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