Black Autobiography and Imperial Disruption in Post-emancipation Jamaica

Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:30 AM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Christienna Fryar, University of Liverpool
This paper examines Seven Months in the Kingston Lunatic Asylum, and What I saw There, a pamphlet published in July 1860 in Kingston, Jamaica. Seven Months was written—in some fashion—by Ann Pratt, a mixed-race Jamaican woman who described the countless horrors that she had experienced or witnessed during her seven-month stay in the asylum. The text transformed a years-long controversy over the treatment of patients in Kingston’s lunatic asylum and public hospital. While before the text’s publication, the London Colonial Office had effectively shunted responsibility to the colonial governor, after the text arrived in London, imperial bureaucrats demanded investigations, reprimanded the colony’s governor, and used the findings from a commissioned report as inspiration for an empire-wide investigation of colonial asylums. What gave this text its force, I will argue, was not only its sustained focus on the abuse of women that masqueraded as care, but also its potent combination of the genre conventions of both slave narratives and asylum survivor narratives. Furthermore, this paper suggests that while the work of imperial bureaucracy often obscured the lives of colonial subjects, by its very nature, the administrative demands for paperwork and reports at times created pathways for the direct testimony of black subjects. Thus the text represents one woman of color’s powerful and ultimately successful challenge to the medical authorities who abused their power over patients and her implicit demands for British intervention on behalf of the invisible people of the empire.
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