For the month of December 1886, white Natalians were galvanised by the fear that white women were in imminent danger of being raped by black men. Mobs of male settlers attacked Africans living in towns and huge public meetings were organised to discuss the 'social pest'. The colonial government responded to this agitation by passing laws providing for a system of 'native' registration in Natal and imposing capital punishment for the crime of rape. In attempting to account for the outbreak of this scare, this article examines the context in which white male anxieties emerged. Drawing from recent scholarship on 'white panics' produced by southern African and American historians, it posits that an economic depression in Natal in the 1880s heightened tensions between settlers and black competitors, and between white men and women. These economic difficulties threatened to undermine the position of white men within the colonial hierarchy, and increased concerns about the implications of black male domestic servants performing what was considered 'women's work' in settler homes, as well as white women's 'inappropriate' behaviour towards them. The scare was a manifestation of these concerns, as well as an opportunity for male settlers to reassert dominance over black men and white women. This article also considers the legislative legacy left by the 1886 panic. It concludes that the scare was a crucial factor in the promulgation of early laws providing for 'native' registration in Natal, and that the government's legislative response was in large degree shaped by extra-legal pressure applied by settlers.