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Drapetomania

Drapetomania, from the Greek drapetes (runaway slave) and mania (mad or crazy), literally means "the disease causing slaves to run away." In the 'Medical Times and Gazette' (Nov. 8th, 1856,) it is stated that "in a work by Mr. Olmsted, on the 'Seaboard Slave States of the Union,' a Dr. Cartwright describes a form of disease he calls Drapetomania, which, like a malady that cats are liable to, manifests itself by an irrestrainable propensity to run away." But, ssome thought surely Dr. Cartwright was enjoying a jest at the expense of his readers. In the judgment of some, the absence of such a propensity would be a melancholy proof of imbecility or incipient dementia.

Little, in his History of Richmond, did not fail to notice this singular pathological fact. He said that, in the earliest colonial newspapers, "Runaway servants are advertised; generally white men, convicts sold for their crimes; the nation, as well as the description of the person is given, and sometimes the manner of carrying himself, when in liquor. We find Englishmen, Irish, Welsh, and Scotch, all in print, as runaway convict slaves."

Olmstead noted, in satire, that "Owing, probably, to the neglect of sufficient quarantine precautions, Dysa1thesia Ethiopica must have been introduced by the African traders, at an early period; and its contagion was not confined to the Ethiopian stock, but, perhaps, from their then more close association in the labors of the plantation, it too frequently, also, attacked the white slaves."

Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright — a Professor in the University of Louisiana - wrote a learned paper on the diseases of Negroes - the "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race", which was much esteemed in the South. Cartwight said that slaves were liable to a peculiar form of mental disease, which he called Drapetomania. This dreadful malady manifests itself by an irresistible desire to run away! The learned doctor described the earlier symptoms of this peculiar mental disease; he informe readers that the patient begins to be sulky, has nothing to say, looks suspicious, and so on; he further stated what remedies are to be used at this stage of the disease, and if these fail, he thinks there was nothing left but to whip it out of them.

Cartwright wrote "It is unknown to our medical authorities, although its diagnostic symptom, the absconding from service, is well known to our planters and overseers, as it was to the ancient Greeks, who expressed by the single word ***** the fact of the absconding, and the relation that the fugitive held to the person he fled from. I have added to the word meaning runaway slave, another Greek term, to express the disease of the mind causing him to abscond. In noticing a disease not heretofore classed among the long list of maladies that man is subject to, it was necessary to have a new term to express it. The cause, in the most of cases, that induces the negro to run away from service, is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation, and much more curable, as a general rule. With the advantages of proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented, although the slaves be located on the borders of a free state, within a stone's throw of the abolitionists.... "

"In noticing a disease not heretofore classed among the longlist of maladies that man is subject to, it was necessary to have a new term to express it. The cause, in the most of cases, that induces the negro to run away from service, is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation, and much more curable, as a general rule. With the advantages of proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented, although the slaves be located on the borders of a free State, within a stone’s throw of the abolitionists....

"... some persons, considered as very good, and others as very bad masters, often lost their negroes by their absconding from service ; while the slaves of another class of persons, remarkable for order and good discipline, but not praised or blamed as either good or bad masters, never ran away, although no guard or forcible means were used to prevent them. The same,management which prevented them from walking over a mere nominal, unguarded line, will prevent them from running away anywhere....

"To ascertain the true method of governing negroes, so as to cure and prevent the disease under consideration, we must go back to the Pentateuch, and learn the true meaning of the untranslated term that represents the negro race. In the name there given to that race is locked up the true art of governing negroes in such a manner that they cannot run away. The correct translation of that term declares the Creator’s will in regard to the negro, it declares him to be the submissive knee-bender. In the anatomical conformation of his knees, we see ‘genuflewit’ written in the physical structure of his knees, being more flexed or bent, than any other kind of a man.

"If the white man attempts to oppose the Deity’s will, by trying to make the negro anything else than ‘the submissive knee bender,’ (which the Almighty declared he should be,) by trying to raise him to a level with himself, or by putting himself on an equality with the negro; or if he abuses the power which God has given him over his fellow man,by being cruel to him or punishmg him in anger, or by neglecting to prntect him from the wanton abuses of his fellow-servants and all others, or by denying him the usual comforts and necessaries of life, the negro will run away : but if he keeps him in the position that we learn from the scriptures he was intended to occupy, that is, the position of submission, and if his master or overseer be kind and gracious in his hearing towards him without condescension, and at the same time ministers to his physical wants and protects him from abuses the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away.

"According to any experience, the ‘genu flexit ’ —- the awe and reverence, must be exacted from them, or they will despise their masters, become rude and ungovernable, and run away. On Mason & Dixon’s line, two classes of persons were apt to lose their negroes; those who made themselves too familiar with them, treating them as equals, and making little or no distinction in regard to color; and, on the other hand, those who treated them cruelly, denied them the common necessaries of life, neglected to protect them against the abuses of others, or frightened them by a blustering manner of approach, when about to punish them for misdemeanors.

"Betore negroes run away, unless they are frightened or panic- struck, they become sulky and dissatisfied. The cause of this sulkiness and dissatisfaction should be inquired into and removed, or they are apt to run away or fall into the negro consumption. When sulky and dissatisfied without cause, the experience of those on the line and elsewhere was decidedly in favor of whipping them out of it as a preventive measure against absconding or other bad conduct. It was called whipping the devil out of them. "If treated kindly, well fed and clothed, with fuel enough to keep a small fire burning all night, separated into families, each family having its own house-—not permitted to run about at night; or to visit, or to use intoxicating liquors, and not overworked or exposed too much to the weather, they are very eaisly governcd—-more so than any other people in the world. Vi/hen all this is done, if any one or more of them at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good require that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which it was intended for them to occupy in all after time, when their progenitor received the name of Canaan, or ‘submissive knee-bender.’ They have only to be kept in that state, and treated like children, with care, kindness, attention and humanity, to prevent and cure them from running away. "

Cartwright's "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race" was a prime example of the lengths to which these defenders of slavery would go in attempting to offer a scientific rationale for the institution.

In Southern newspapers there were frquently advertisements offering so many dollars for a runaway slave. There were men who make it their business to catch them. Advertisements like the following are often to be met with :—"Notice. The undersigned, having an excellent pack of hounds for trailing and catching runaway slaves, informs the public that his prices in future will be as follows," &c.




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Page last modified: 29-11-2017 19:30:22 ZULU