Frederick W. Hickling on “Enslaved minds: decolonising mental health”


[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] In “Enslaved minds: decolonising mental health,” the late Frederick W. Hickling (University of the West Indies-Mona, Jamaica) explores how centuries of colonial oppression have left their mark on Jamaica’s mental health.

The ACW Review reports that Professor Hickling passed away about a month before the publication of this article (8 July 2020). Our heartfelt condolences. Dr. Frederick W Hickling was Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Executive Director of the Caribbean Institute of Mental health and Substance Abuse at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica. ACW writes, “Professor Hickling was one of Jamaica’s most renowned psychiatrists, with Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness paying tribute to him as ‘one of the preeminent voices in the field of psychiatry in Jamaica and the Caribbean.’” Here are excerpts; for the complete article, please visit the Association of Commonwealth Universities Review.

In postcolonial Jamaica, our greatest mental health challenge has been to counter the psychological impact of 500 years of European racism and colonial oppression. For the descendants of African people enslaved in Jamaica, this has been a process of dismantling the colonial policies and structures that saw thousands of Jamaicans incarcerated in lunatic asylums, while also seeking ways to heal the historical legacy of sustained structural violence and abuse that remain potent causative factors in contemporary mental illness.

The chains that bind

To comprehend the depth and complexity of this challenge demands that we consider Jamaica’s colonial history and, in particular, the sugar cane plantation system that underpinned British colonial rule. It was a system buttressed by the ideology of white supremacy and engineered through brutality and fear. Huge tracts of fertile arable land were seized by the British, and thousands of Africans ripped from their homeland to provide free forced labour. The slaves cleared the land, planted and cared for the cane, and cut and transported the crop for sugar extraction in the plantation factories – all at the end of a gun and in fear of their lives.

Enslaved people were regarded as only three-fifths human, reared for subservience and exploitation. The slave master was a cruel and vicious ruler, and collectively these murderous masters established a ruthless system of law that entrenched white supremacy through the creation of a social economy and a system of military control and punishment. This meticulously manicured system of apartheid privileged the rights of Englishmen and relegated all others to inferior status at best and ‘non-personhood’ at worst. Enslaved Africans either adapted or perished.

Many fundamental aspects of society were fashioned by this colonial apartheid system – the military, judiciary, police, prisons, education and health – including, of course, mental health. In the initial period of slavery, a slave displaying signs of severe mental illness could and would be summarily executed. Later, in 1851, an American physician called Samuel Cartwright described dysaesthesia aethiopica – a so-called mental illness affecting slaves, the ‘symptoms’ of which included disobedience, answering disrespectfully, or refusing to work.

Post-emancipation, the sole care model for mentally ill Jamaicans was the Bellevue Lunatic Asylum, a vast Victorian institution built by the colonial government in 1862. Bellevue underlined and echoed the same principle of involuntary incarceration that had been a brutal hallmark of the slavery system. Among those incarcerated in desperate and deplorable conditions were political activists such as Rastafari and others displaying unusual or bizarre methods of expressing resistance to colonial apartheid. When, more than 100 years later, I found myself working as a consultant psychiatrist at Bellevue, I would learn first-hand of the depth and complexity of the mental, social and political enslavement imposed on Jamaican people. It was 1974 and Bellevue still housed 3,000 people within its walls.

The dawn of independence

Understanding the reality of postcolonial mental enslavement is extremely difficult for someone who has never lived in a colonial society. This is especially true for citizens born after the coloniser grants political independence and withdraws.

I was born in British colonial Jamaica in the dying months of the second world war, and my appreciation of the effects of British colonialism was vivid. My parents were tertiary-educated black Jamaicans, members of what was then a small intelligentsia descended from enslaved Africans. My father, a colonial civil servant, was the son of ‘free-coloureds’ from the parish of Manchester, and my mother a black concert pianist from Kingston.

My secondary schooling was at an establishment bequeathed by John Wolmer, a wealthy white British goldsmith, for the education of ‘poor whites and free coloureds’. My parental home in Kingston was ten minutes’ walk from a military base which stationed 5,000 British soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. I was made uncomfortably aware of British colonial racism as a teenager when I was ambushed by the white soldiers’ sons who attended my school. I escaped a beating by fleet-footing it into my home, just across the road from the parked army lorry that transported the soldiers’ children to and from school.

After centuries of struggle against British enslavement and colonialism, political independence finally came in 1962 and the process of dismantling the architecture of apartheid began. It was slow but relentless. When a commercial bank employed its first black bank teller, many Jamaicans journeyed to witness the strange sight. Thousands migrated to Britain, all on the invitation of the Empire, to help the post-war rebuilding efforts there. Rastafari was emerging as a countercultural political/religious movement that would be active in the decolonial struggle worldwide for decades to come.

But the birth of political independence also ushered in the pioneers of modern Caribbean mental healthcare, with the University of the West Indies at the helm. This cohort of indigenous psychiatrists led a revolution in psychiatric treatment; Jamaica had begun a worldwide movement against colonial custodial approaches to the treatment of mental illness. [. . .]

For full article and related material, see

A bio of the late Prof. Frederick W. Hickling is available at

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