In a recent article Shula Marks has asked, what is colonial about colonial medicine? The answer, of course, depends in part on what one considers ‘colonial’ to mean. One of the benefits – perhaps unexpected – of the growth of studies of colonial medical institutions in recent years has been a growing appreciation of the diversity of colonial contexts, the recognition that colonialism was not the same in all places. This chapter seeks to contribute to that understanding by posing the question, what was distinctively colonial about the confinement of the insane in Nigeria, with an emphasis on institutions in the southwest of the country?
The history of Nigeria's asylums re-enacted developments common in the comparative history of psychiatric institutions, but also illustrates themes peculiar to the politics and priorities of colonialism. In the beginning, the institutions were, like many colonial imports, already obsolete by metropolitan standards, replicating many of the faults British psychiatry had come to pride itself on overcoming. For most of the early twentieth century, colonial officials in Nigeria lamented the state of the asylums and planned fitfully to reform them. But when reform was achieved in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was contemporary with Nigeria's gradual shift to independence, and the reform was largely accomplished through the initiatives of Nigerians.
Victorian Britain enacted a series of dramatic changes in lunacy policy, including increased institutionalization, the rise of ‘moral treatment’ and other optimistic therapies.