Pain As Privilege

Historian Joanna Bourke, the author of The Story of Pain, recalls that physical discomfort was once thought to be an affliction of the elite:

In many white middle-class and upper-class circles, slaves and “savages,” for instance, were routinely depicted as possessing a limited capacity to experience pain, a biological “fact” that conveniently diminished any culpability among their so-called superiors for acts of abuse inflicted on them. Although the author of Practical Rules for the Management and Medical Treatment of Negro Slaves, in the Sugar Colonies (1811) conceded that “the knife of the anatomist … has never been able to detect” anatomical differences between slaves and their white masters, he nevertheless contended that slaves were better “able to endure, with few expressions of pain, the accidents of nature.” This was providential indeed, given that they were subjected to so many “accidents of nature” while laboring on sugar-cane plantations. …

But what was it about the non-European body that allegedly rendered it less susceptible to painful stimuli?

Racial sciences placed great emphasis on the development and complexity of the brain and nerves. As the author of Pain and Sympathy (1907) concluded, attempting to explain why the “savage” could “bear physical torture without shrinking”: the “higher the life, the keener is the sense of pain.” There was also speculation that the civilizing process itself had rendered European peoples more sensitive to pain. The cele­brated American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell stated in 1892 that in the ‘process of being civilized we have won … intensified capacity to suffer.” After all, “the savage does not feel pain as we do: nor as we examine the descending scale of life do animals seem to have the acuteness of pain-sense at which we have arrived.”