The captivity narratives produced in New England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries are rich and complex sources in which to discover early modern attitudes towards empathy. Contemporary scholars including Sara Ahmed and Carolyn Pedwell have argued that empathy can be problematic, reifying and reproducing various forms of injustice under the guise of fellow feeling. On the early modern North American frontier, empathy was understood as problematic for other reasons, an undesirable response to both the captors and the captive that was often diverted, displaced, or denied in captivity narratives. By situating the captivity narratives of Hannah Swarton, Hannah Dustan, Mary Rowlandson and Elizabeth Hanson within their initial cultural contexts and contemporary theories of empathy and emotions, this essay contributes to an alternative history of empathy.
Andrew Mitchell’s emotional reactions to his battlefield experiences in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) are detailed in his correspondence. Mitchell was British envoy to Prussia and its ruler Frederick II from 1756 to 1771. His letters home and to friends during the war were an outlet for his emotional turmoil, often unguarded and often expressed without a framework for comprehending the significance or impact of the emotions he felt. His problems were compounded by contemporary diplomatic theory and philosophy, which actively discouraged displays of emotion, advocating self-control and the construction of an identity best equipped to achieve diplomatic ends rather than truly represent what was felt. Analysis of Mitchell’s correspondence suggests that he used letter writing to make sense of his conflicted feelings and to fashion a viable emotional identity in his difficult situation.