Thursday, March 10, 2011

Runaway Slaves and Drapetomania

Estimating the total number of runaways is difficult. Some consider the claim of a southern judge in 1855 that the South had lost “upwards of sixty thousand slaves” to the North to be a credible estimate. Frederick Olmsted discovered as he toured the South during the 1850s that on virtually every large or medium sized plantation he visited masters complained about runaways. It was a rare planter among those who owned twenty or more slaves who could boast that none of his slaves had ever run off.

Masters were forced to explain why contented and well cared for servants abandoned them so frequently and in such large numbers. Among other disciplines, masters looked to science (i.e. pseudo science) for answers. Dr Samuel Cartwright of New Orleans offered a medical explanation. In an article published in DeBows’Review in September 1851, Cartwright explained that many slaves suffered from “Drapetomania, Or the Disease Causing Negroes to Run Away.” Dr. Cartwright hypothesized, “The cause, in most cases, that induces the negro to runaway from service, is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation.” The doctor went on to assure his readers that the Creator’s will in regard to the negro is that he shall be a “submissive knee bender,” noting a particular anatomical conformation of the knee supposedly peculiar to the race. If the white man abuses the negro or tries to put him on an equal footing, Doctor Cartwright said, it causes a mental imbalance which required, “…whipping it out of them out of it, as a preventative measure against absconding, or other bad conduct.”

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