In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slavery and Fear

  • Introduction
  • The History of Emotions and Conceptual Approaches
  • Slave Trades
  • Law and Race
  • Daily Violence and Rape
  • African Religion and Poisoning
  • General Dread of Insurrection
  • Rebellions and Their Aftermaths
  • Conspiracy Scares and Averted Insurrections
  • Age of Revolutions
  • Antislavery and Abolition

Atlantic History Slavery and Fear
Jason T. Sharples
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0308


The extreme violence of Atlantic slavery made it a system of fear. From slaving vessels off the coast of Africa to interior regions of the American continents, masters deliberately terrorized enslaved people through whipping, family separation, and rape in attempts to control them. That use of terror inadvertently sowed the seeds of masters’ own fear of their slaves. Out of self-preservation, enslaved people used subtle forms of resistance that could not easily be ascribed to them but about which masters were glancingly aware. Masters worried that in time, if poison, witchcraft, or arson did not consume them, enslaved people would answer overt violence with overt violence through insurrection. Masters erected legal and policing apparatuses whose wellspring was their own fear and that permitted them within the confines of their homes to terrorize enslaved individuals with impunity. In this system of fear, masters’ dread of insurrection often led them to use even greater brutality, such as torture, dismemberment, and burning at the stake, to assert control after rebellions or even to preemptively quash uprisings that were rumored to be coming. With all of this violence, those masters, slaves, and onlookers who paused to consider its religious implications found themselves variously anxious about their eternal souls, fearful of God’s vengeance on society, or all too willing to inflict spiritual terror on others. In the end, slavery’s system of fear influenced two of the greatest political transformations of the early modern Atlantic world: the Age of Revolutions and the abolition of slavery. This bibliography pulls together selected examples of scholarship that addresses this system of fear in slavery. The Portuguese, French, and Spanish Americas are all represented here, but the sheer depth of Anglo-American slavery’s historiography means that it has explored this theme more directly. Nevertheless, readers who are looking for fear would surely find it between the lines of almost any scholarship on slavery. This bibliography begins with a sampling of conceptual work on the history of emotions in general—a relatively new field—and some exemplary treatments of fear in studies of slavery, race, and power.

The History of Emotions and Conceptual Approaches

There is a fundamental tension in how historians conceive of fear and other emotions in the past. Since the 1980s, scholars have viewed emotions alternately as psychological experiences and as culturally constructed performances. The psychological approach to the past predated psychology itself: many historians, including the ancients, have long used the concept of fear to explain individuals’ decisions and societies’ irrational phenomena. After postmodernism and the linguistic turn, scholars have become more circumspect about assuming a consistent and transhistorical human experience of emotions that is easily legible to us today. In the field of emotions history, as the overview Rosenwein and Cristiani 2018 explains, the concept of “emotionology” posited historical changes in societies’ mores of acceptable and unacceptable emotions. Reddy 2001 attempts to reconcile a person’s baseline psychological experience with how he or she communicated it within systems of acceptable emotional expression. Eustace 2008 applies Reddy’s approach to studying emotional expression to 18th-century Anglo-America with a sharper emphasis on projecting and contesting power and social status. Rosenwein 2016 expands the view of any given historical emotional system to include non-elites in “emotional communities” accessible through clusters of affective terms such as those carved on gravestones. Meanwhile, scholars who deal with fear and terror find perhaps more meaningful inspiration in the study of the body, as an excellent chapter on “Bodies” explains in Rosenwein and Cristiani 2018. Hartman 1997 views bodily torture and trauma as the fundamental experience of slavery, generative of many aspects of African American culture. Fear’s relationship to power—another key concern of slavery studies—has become a subject of scholarly interest since 11 September 2001. Robin 2006 highlights the many ways that the powerful have used fear to exert more influence, and Schechter 2018 demonstrates that many intellectuals prior to the French Revolution believed that this use of terror to instill order was a good thing for society. Dealing with racial ideology rather than individual exercises of power, Silver 2008 views a sustained period of violence and fear as an important cause of Anglo-American hatred of Native Americans. Henneton 2016 brings some additional clarity to discussions of fear by insisting on always identifying who feared whom, for taking what actions, and at risk of losing what. This precision illuminates historical specificities of fear.

  • Eustace, Nicole. Passion Is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

    This work by the leading historian of emotions in early America provides a clear methodology for applying Reddy 2001 to 18th-century America. It examines how those in power promulgated emotional expectations to establish their own social statuses, and it reveals how people could subtly modulate their emotions to subvert the powerful.

  • Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    This study of the antebellum and post-slavery US South emphasizes continuities in the oppression and torture of black people. Hartman argues that pain and terror so pervaded enslaved and freed people’s experiences that it constructed even what we have regarded as hidden acts of resistance and self-fashioning, such as dancing. Even the desire to use clandestine forms of resistance was determined by the terroristic regime.

  • Henneton, Lauric. “Introduction: Adjusting to Fear in Early America.” In Fear and the Shaping of Early American Societies. Edited by Lauric Henneton and L. H. Roper, 1–37. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004314740_002

    Provides a more precise vocabulary for the study of fear, including by positing fear as a whole category of emotions. Views fear as similar to anxiety in being future-oriented, yet more attached to precise expectations of loss. Prompts scholars to ask who feared whom for potentially doing what, because different segments of societies (e.g., masters and slaves) viewed situations differently. Responses to fear could be either reactive or proactive; either short-term or structural; and either defensive or offensive.

  • Reddy, William M. The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511512001

    A landmark work in the history of emotions but does not address slavery. Posits “emotives” as expressions of feeling that, in their utterance, altered the emotional states of speakers and audiences. “Emotional regimes” are the political systems that permit or disallow particular emotions among certain people in particular situations. The French Revolution is the case study.

  • Robin, Corey. Fear: The History of a Political Idea. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Lucid explanation of how fear, terror, and anxiety have worked in political settings, from early modern Europe to contemporary America, both at the societal level and between two unequal individuals. Observes that the powerful tend more often to instill fear in the powerless, but that such inequalities do breed elites’ anxieties of attempted uprisings and reversals.

  • Rosenwein, Barbara H. Generations of Feeling: A History of Emotions, 600–1700. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316156780

    A cornerstone of emotions history but does not address slavery. An application of Rosenwein’s earlier theorized concept of “emotional communities,” or groups of interrelated people who shared emotional vocabularies and values. This approach values whole systems of emotions, and even adjacent communities, rather than power politics or hegemonic regimes. The study proceeds from late medieval to early modern Europe.

  • Rosenwein, Barbara H., and Riccardo Cristiani. What Is the History of Emotions? Cambridge, UK, and Medford, MA: Polity, 2018.

    A concise and thorough overview. Slavery scholars will take special interest in chapter 3, “Bodies” (pp. 62–102), because pain was fundamental to slavery. Some emotions historians have begun drawing connections between the human body—particularly pain—and the history of feelings. They update Elaine Scarry’s theory of the inexpressibility of pain by connecting emotional interpretation and racialized emotional regimes to the experience of pain. This chapter provides an overview of this still-nascent scholarship.

  • Schechter, Ronald. A Genealogy of Terror in Eighteenth-Century France. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226499604.001.0001

    A study of political theory and assumptions about human nature that undergirded early modern regimes of slavery. An intellectual history that demonstrates how early modern Europeans perceived terror to be salutary and uncruel in many respects, at least prior to the French Revolution. One theme relevant to the study of slavery is fear’s relationship to religious belief and the exercise of kingly and legal power. See especially the introduction and chapter 3.

  • Silver, Peter. Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America. New York: Norton, 2008.

    A study of race. Although not dealing with slavery, this is an excellent application of taking fear seriously as a historical force in the creation of racial categories and political movements. The subject of this case study is experience, representation, and memory of violence by Indians against white Pennsylvanians in the Seven Years’ War.

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