What Sigmund Freud, psychoanalysis had to do with the British Empire's hold over India, colonies

For decades India and other colonies have theorised what made it so easy for the British Empire to rule them. Assistant professor of History at the University of Virginia Erik Linstrum believes that one of the tools used by the colonists was psychoanalysis. In a chat with Firstpost, he explains his research (which he encapsulated in a book called Ruling Minds: Psychology in the British Empire), the importance of Sigmund Freud's ideas and psychoanalysis to the Empire, and how these were applied in India.

Large holdings of the empire began to crumble after World War I. Where was psychoanalysis as a field at the time, globally and in the context of the empire? Was it already being weaponised?

Across the world, and perhaps especially in Britain, psychoanalysis was still very much in its infancy. Discomfort with Freud's emphasis on sexuality slowed its acceptance by the medical establishment. Popularisers blended his theories with those of other thinkers, including his rivals Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, and generally watered down his most controversial claims. In elite intellectual circles in London and Cambridge, however, psychoanalysis was becoming ever more fashionable. Some of these early adherents included anthropologists and others who would go on to apply Freudian methods in the empire. The Eurocentrism of early psychoanalysis is, of course, pronounced; Freud, in this period, remained focused on recruiting followers and winning battles close to home.

Beyond Europe, however, the most extensive psychoanalytic community in the world was almost certainly in India.

Girindrashekar Bose, who founded a psychoanalytical society in (then) Calcutta in 1922, carried on a long correspondence with Freud and boldly questioned whether the master's theories — such as the Oedipus complex — applied to Bengali families as well as they did to Viennese families. In this sense, the "globalisation" of psychoanalysis promised to unsettle the racial assumptions built into its European origins. At the same time, however, some Britons in India had other ideas. At least two psychoanalytic enthusiasts who were officers in the British Army argued that the infantile, effeminate, and obsessive personality traits which Freud attributed to neurotic disorders were in fact widespread among Indian Hindus. As a result, they argued, Indians could never hope to govern themselves.

You mention in your work that there were ‘dreamhunters’ and the like working for the Empire in its colonies. Who were these people? What was the nature of their task?

As psychoanalysis attracted increasing interest among British intellectuals, some of them began to ask whether its methods could travel across cultural and racial boundaries. This group included officials — district officers, medical officers, education officers — who helped to run the empire overseas, and also academic researchers — particularly anthropologists — who worked in the colonies. In the 1920s and 1930s — at a time when resistance to British imperialism was intensifying from India to Iraq to Egypt to Nigeria — unlocking the secrets of the so-called "native mind" acquired new political urgency. Collecting the dreams of colonial subjects and analysing them offered a way to explore the inner world of emotions and fantasies which were otherwise inaccessible to British rulers.

International Psychoanalytic Congress in 1911. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are standing at the centre of the second row (from the front). Wikimedia Commons

International Psychoanalytic Congress in 1911. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are standing at the centre of the second row (from the front). Wikimedia Commons

The biggest network of imperial dream collectors, organised by an anthropologist named Charles Gabriel Seligman, set out with more modest ambitions. Seligman initially wanted to know whether Freudian concepts like repression and the Oedipus complex were universal for all human beings or culturally determined instead. So he asked his contacts in far-flung locales across the British Empire — from the Solomon Islands, to Australia, to the Naga Hills of India, to the Sudan, to Uganda, to Nigeria — to get people to describe their dreams in detail and then probe for clues about their emotional lives that might help to interpret them. Seligman's agents wrote up what they found and sent their reports back to Seligman in England.

As it happens, these dreams seemed to show that many — though not all — of Freud's assumptions did hold true for other cultures. But another, unexpected theme also emerged: colonial subjects were far more preoccupied with the effects of British imperialism, and far more resentful of it, than the imperialists themselves had suspected.

Many dreams were haunted by traumatic encounters with settlers, officials, and missionaries; by fears of violent punishment; and by the dispossession, inequality, and lack of opportunity which British rule imposed.

Charles Gabriel Seligman's is the most prominent name that pops up in your work. Can you explain his role, his intentions and what you learned about him through your research?

Seligman is a fascinating and, I think, unjustly neglected character. He was an anthropologist who spent most of his career teaching at the London School of Economics, where he trained some of the biggest names in the field, including Bronislaw Malinowski and EE Evans-Pritchard. Like most educated, upper-class Englishmen of his era, Seligman was an imperialist. He built his career studying colonised peoples from New Guinea to Sudan to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon); he believed that differences between cultures had their origin in racial differences, which he defined in terms of biology; and he played a part in training officials in the colonial service. After undergoing psychoanalysis sometime in the 1910s, Seligman also became utterly enchanted with Freudian theory, recording his own dreams and even writing to Freud himself to ask for help interpreting them. He started collecting dreams while doing fieldwork in other cultures and then, on a much bigger scale, encouraged other researchers to do the same.

Seligman's views on what he called "racial psychology" were complicated, to say the least. He noted that the same kinds of images and fantasies occurred in dreams all over the world, which is why he announced, in a 1932 lecture at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, that "the savage mind and the mind of Western civilised man are essentially alike." At the same time, he never abandoned the idea that human groups could be ranked on an evolutionary scale, and he had very little to say about the unflattering picture of British imperialism which emerged from his dream research. In the end, Seligman was not really prepared to follow his own findings to their logical conclusion. But he did set a precedent for others to investigate the psychic wounds of empire.

Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey

Robert Clive's victory at the Battle of Plassey

Can you explain the Freudian concept of the father-son (Oedipal) relationship, the idea of the patriarch, and how it may have manifested in what Seligman or his ‘social scientists’ collected as data in the colonies? How many such records did Seligman collect? What did they indicate?

Freud famously pioneered the concept of the Oedipus complex, named after the Sophocles play about a young man who is fated to marry his mother and kill his father. Freud came to believe that this story described the universal pattern of childhood development, forgotten or repressed in later life, in which boys desired their mothers and despised their fathers as rivals. Because fathers simultaneously enforce the prohibitions we view as unfair and enjoy the privileges we long to claim for ourselves, they inspire ambivalent feelings: we resent them, we fear them, and yet we also strive to emulate them. According to Freud, the “father figure" represented the original authority figure, shaping adult attitudes to religion and politics, among other things.

What Seligman and other researchers could not help noticing was that British authorities often played the role of the tyrannical patriarch in the dreams they collected.

This conclusion often required some decoding in accordance with Freud's theories. So, for instance, when a man from the Naga Hills dreamed of throwing a rock at an elephant which belonged to the local district officer, and then imagined himself at home with a brood of children, Seligman concluded that he wanted to usurp the official’s position. As Seligman put it, "he lives his father hostility and becomes the father himself." Outwardly deferential — he worked as a clerk for the district officer in question — this man in fact resented the seizure of power by British imperialists, and longed to topple them. And although the details differed, the same dynamic appeared in dreams from Australia, Uganda, Ghana (then the Gold Coast), and Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia). Applying the Oedipus story to these accounts suggested that colonial subjects who appeared to accept their subordinate position did so out of fear, rather than respect or affection, and that the risk of rebellion was ever present.

Perhaps the most significant of Seligman's 'findings' was that whether they hailed from the colonies or the west, minds thought alike. Can you point to a few things or methods used by the empire to highlight the differences, and the Seligman findings that indicated otherwise? Were these findings suppressed?

Since the Victorian era, if not before, ideologies of empire tended to draw a sharp distinction between European minds and "native" minds. In the late 19th century, evolutionary thinkers like Herbert Spencer argued that the most prosperous and powerful societies — with Britain, of course, as the leading example — owed their achievement to a particular kind of psychology. In this view, societies at the top end of the evolutionary scale brought instinctual drives under rational control; they planned for the future rather than indulging in instant gratification; they mediated sensory experience through abstract ideas and principles. The mental world of less advanced races, by contrast, was supposedly impulsive, dominated by the immediacy of the senses, and restrained only by the collective codes of the village, caste, or tribe.

Although not every British thinker would have agreed, or put it precisely in the same way, it was commonplace to assume that "native" minds had little inner depth, complexity, or individuality.

In many ways, the use of psychoanalysis in the empire made it much more difficult to justify these kinds of generalisations. On the one hand, the dreams of colonial subjects revealed the same inner conflicts between desire and convention, the same extended afterlife of memories and experiences, and the same elaborate systems of encode-ment that Freud made famous in his studies of European patients. Even the symbolic images in dreams, Seligman found, often had the same meaning in Asia or Africa as in Europe: flying through the air represented erotic excitement, for instance, while losing a tooth signaled anxiety or fear of death.

On the other hand, psychoanalytic work in Europe, by Seligman and others, demonstrated that certain supposed traits of the "native" mind were very much present there too. Instinct could defeat rationality everywhere, it turned out, not only in the content of dreams but in the significance that people attached to them. For instance, when Seligman tried to explain Freudian theory to an audience of ordinary British people in the early 1930s, he quickly discovered that many of them saw dreams as prophecies of the future — a belief he had earlier observed during his fieldwork with supposedly "primitive" cultures.

'Imperial Federation: Map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886'. Wikimedia Commons

'Imperial Federation: Map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886'. Wikimedia Commons

In the end, I'm not sure that "suppressed" is the right word, because Seligman himself seemed unsure what to make of his findings. What did happen is that other researchers and officials, working on behalf of the British Empire, used the language of psychoanalysis to inscribe new kinds of racial hierarchies. For instance, some argued that anticolonial nationalism was merely a symptom of neurosis, like a childlike outburst of frustration, which need not be taken seriously. Others tried to demonstrate that the way Asian and African mothers raised their children — even including the way they nursed and weaned their babies — created adult personalities which were immature, unstable, and therefore unsuited to political independence. And of course, Freud himself has often been criticised for equating the "primitive" with the infantile and the neurotic.

In a post-Mindhunter world, the idea of psychoanalysis as a colonial tool is intriguing. But how does an empire go from studying the ones they rule to using it against them?

Every state needs to know about the people it rules. This was especially true of imperial states, which had to navigate a dizzying array of cultures, and were consequently in the forefront of adopting new techniques — censuses, for instance — aimed at making sense of populations as a whole. Psychoanalysis was a particularly seductive tool because it promised insight into an elusive question: what were the subjects of empire thinking and feeling? Democratic states have elections, demonstrations, and press commentary to help answer that question; empires, of course, did not. What is more, British imperialists often fixated on the idea that the "native" mind was opaque and difficult to decipher — a convenient justification, perhaps, for their own failures of government. Dreams, along with other psychological methods, offered a tempting shortcut. For many imperial rulers, they promised useful knowledge about the people they ruled without demanding empathy.


Updated Date: Jan 27, 2018 20:21 PM

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