Undoing the ‘Madwoman’: A Minor History of Uselessness, Dementia and Indenture in Colonial Fiji


This article sets out to undo colonial constructions of the ‘madwoman’ in Fiji during the indenture period. It will critique how lunacy, or more specifically the condition of dementia, was sometimes presented as the colonial response to ‘uselessness’ in the sugarcane plantations. When archival fragments relating to an indentured woman named Dhurma, are retrieved and situated within a historical context they demonstrate how unproductivity was perceived as a signifier of an ‘unsound mind’ because it conflicted with the utilitarian logic of universal and individual economic advancement espoused by the British colonial administration. The article will also present brief accounts of other indentured women who were diagnosed with ‘dementia’ to illustrate how the ‘useless madwoman’ phenomena was not an isolated one. If the allegations of dementia presented here are reassessed in light of definitions of lunacy including the usage of this term in The English Lunacy Act of 1838, it may be possible to read against the dominant (male) voice in the asylum records and thus deconstruct murky projections of madness vis-a-vis colonialism.

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Research Type(s)
Journal Article
Submitted by Sonia Palmieri
March 30, 2021
Published in
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