To nineteenth-century colonial Britons, the elephant was of great importance. Not only were these giants widely used in colonial enterprises such as the army and timber industry. The animal also figured prominently in the visual and literary culture of that time. In the British Raj, the theme of human domination over other animals served to ratify colonial hierarchies. By presenting native attitudes towards animals as lazy, cowardly, and effeminate, and by juxtaposing these attitudes with the moral superiority of India’s colonizers, stories and pictures produced in the Raj provided a rational and legitimization for Britain’s colonial rule.
In 1998, the Australian professor of colonial medicine Warwick Anderson warned his readers that ‘[w]e should not assume that the colonial world was a passive receptacle for germ theories or any other form of Western medical knowledge’. Although Anderson meant that the arrival of new medical theories to the colonies led to changes that were often creative and at times unpredictable, his statement could be read somewhat differently. As the receptacle in Plato’s Timeaus, the ‘third kind’ the demiurge needed to realize the ideal Forms, the colonial world had a dynamics and structure of its own that at least challenged the universality claimed by western medicine. This, too, was the case with psychiatry. Faced with the culturally unknown, it became debatable whether diseases like hysteria, dementia paralytica and dementia praecox afflicted the ‘native mind’ in ways similar to the civilized West. But how do you diagnose someone whose language you don’t speak and culture you don’t know? This pebble shortly considers some attempts to solve that problem.