Dysaesthesia Aethiopica was an alleged mental illness described by American physician Samuel Adolphus Cartwright in 1851, which proposed a theory for the cause of laziness among black slaves. Today, dysaesthesia aethiopica is considered an example of pseudoscience, and part of the edifice of Scientific Racism.
Found exclusively among black slaves, dysaesthesia aethiopica “called by overseers ‘rascality'” was characterized by partial insensitivity of the skin and “as to be like a person half asleep.” Other symptoms included “lesions of the body discoverable to the medical observer, which are always present and sufficient to account for the symptoms.” Cartwright noted that the existence of dysaesthesia aethiopica was “clearly established by the most direct and positive testimony,” but other doctors had failed to notice it because their “attention had not been sufficiently directed to the maladies of the negro race.”
According to Cartwright, dysaesthesia aethiopica was “much more prevalent among free Negros living in clusters by themselves, than among slaves on our plantations, and attacks only such slaves as live like free negroes in regard to diet, drinks, exercise, etc.” – indeed, according to Cartwright, “nearly all [free negroes] are more or less afflicted with it, that have not got some white person to direct and to take care of them.” He explicitly dismissed the opinion which assigned the causes of the “problematic” behavior to the social situation of the slaves without further justifications: “[The northern physicians] ignorantly attribute the symptoms to the debasing influence of slavery on the mind.”
Cartwright felt that dysaesthesia aethiopica was “easily curable, if treated on sound physiological principles.” Insensitivity of the skin was one symptom of the disease, so the skin should be stimulated:
“The best means to stimulate the skin is, first, to have the patient well washed with warm water and soap; then, to anoint it all over in oil, and to slap the oil in with a broad leather strap; then to put the patient to some hard kind of work in the sunshine.”
According to Cartwright, after the prescribed “course of treatment” the slave will “look grateful and thankful to the white man whose compulsory power … has restored his sensation and dispelled the mist that clouded his intellect.”
“Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race”
“Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race,” by Dr. Cartwright
DYSAETHESIA AETHIOPICA, OR HEBETUDE OF MIND AND OBTUSE SENSIBILITY OF BODY–A DISEASE PECULIAR TO NEGROES–CALLED BY OVERSEERS, ” RASCALITY.”
Dysaesthesia Aethiopica is a disease peculiar to negroes, affecting both mind and body in a manner as well expressed by dysaesthesia, the name I have given it, as could be by a single term. There is both mind and sensibility, but both seem to be difficult to reach by impressions from without. There is a partial insensibility of the skin, and so great a hebetude of the intellectual faculties, as to be like a person half asleep, that is with difficulty aroused and kept awake. It differs from every other species of mental disease, as it is accompanied with physical signs or lesions of the body discoverable to the medical observer, which are always present and sufficient to account for the symptoms. It is much more prevalent among free negroes living in clusters by themselves, than among slaves on our plantations, and attacks only such slaves as live like free negroes in regard to diet, drinks, exercise, etc. It is not my purpose to treat of the complaint as it prevails among free negroes, nearly all of whom are more or less afflicted with it, that have not got some white person to direct and to take care of them. To narrate its symptoms and effects among them would be to write a history of the ruins and dilapidation of Hayti, and every spot of earth they have ever had uncontrolled possession over for any length of time. I propose only to describe its symptoms among slaves.
From the careless movements of the individuals affected with the complaint, they are apt to do much mischief, which appears as if intentional, but is mostly owing to the stupidness of mind and insensibility of the nerves induced by the disease. Thus, they break, waste and destroy everything they handle,–abuse horses and cattle,–tear, burn or rend their own clothing, and, paying no attention to the rights of property, steal others, to replace what they have destroyed. They wander about at night, and keep in a half nodding sleep during the day. They slight their work,–cut up corn, cane, cotton or tobacco when hoeing it, as if for pure mischief. They raise disturbances with their overseers and fellow-servants without cause or motive, and seem to be insensible to pain when subjected to punishment. The fact of the existence of such a complaint, making man like an automaton or senseless machine, having the above or similar symptoms, can be clearly established by the most direct and positive testimony. That it should have escaped the attention of the medical profession, can only be accounted for because its attention has not been sufficiently directed to the maladies of the negro race. Otherwise a complaint of so common an occurrence on badly-governed plantations, and so universal among free negroes, or those who are not governed at all,–a disease radicated in physical lesions and having its peculiar and well marked symptoms and its curative indications, would not have escaped the notice of the profession. The northern physicians and people have noticed the symptoms, but not the disease from which they spring. They ignorantly attribute the symptoms to the debasing influence of slavery on the mind without considering that those who have never been in slavery, or their fathers before them, are the most afflicted, and the latest from the slave-holding South the least. The disease is the natural offspring of negro liberty–the liberty to be idle, to wallow in filth, and to indulge in improper food and drinks.