|‘British ‘nerves’ and the management of Empire: negotiating colonialism and health before World War Two.|
|European ‘Nervousness’ or ‘Tropical Neurasthenia’, as the diagnosis became after 1905, presents an interesting colonial topic to investigate, precisely because it was not a firm psychiatric category. A diagnosis of nervousness was not one of psychosis or neurosis, but was rather an ennui, or loss of ‘edge’ or customary behaviour, brought about by the perceived stresses of the tropical climate. It was a common diagnosis during the pre-world war two colonial period, with many missionaries, colonial staff and settlers being repatriated because of it.
This paper traces ideas of colonial nervousness, moving from early ideas of acclimatisation, to tropical neurasthenia, to rather more dimly-defined assumptions about the stresses integral to tropical life that influenced both official and non-official medical perceptions of the British sub-Saharan region before 1939. It aims to draw out the convergences and divergences between local and metropolitan conceptions of nervousness, contextualising the African-based experiences within their larger cultural and medical framework. This comparative element focuses upon the way a disease category was shaped by both the locality in which it was situated and in the broader intellectual and cultural environment in which it was conceived. The application and comparative endurance of the diagnosis of nervousness says much about British colonial identity, concerns about the management of Empire and the, perceived and real, European relationship with the indigenous people of Africa.