How Does the Life Writing of Equiano and the Poetry of Cowper Strategically Use the Rhetoric of Sensibility in Their Anti-Slavery Writing of the Late Eighteenth Century?

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How does the life writing of Equiano and the poetry of Cowper strategically use the rhetoric of sensibility in their anti-slavery writing of the late eighteenth century?

From the mid-eighteenth century a cult of sensibility was largely defining the newly emerging, polite, sociable and affable culture that was governed by an emphasis on emotions and feelings. By the 1780s and 1790s, sensibility characterised how people should behave with moral refinement, with a decisive shift from enlightenment’s trust in reason, which guided actions and judgements, to an emphasis on society as a system of relationships based on social sympathy. Sensibility was concerned with passionate, emotional language, and in connection to the slave debate, was concerned with raising awareness of suffering and an attempt to change an audiences’ view of it. Sentimentality was expected to connect straight to the human heart, and consequently, literature could become the language of persuasion by putting people in touch with their emotions. It was the growth of humanitarian feeling at the end of the century that led sentimental rhetoric directly into the slave debate, where it was hoped the reader would adopt political positions on the strength of their raised emotions, thus attacking the whole notion of slavery as an institution. The increase of democratic sentiment led to growing attacks on the slave trade, and, set upon the backdrop of the French Revolution, had a great effect in the spread of agitation for human rights, which would produce a more sociable and benevolent culture. This essay shall discover how both Equiano and Cowper bring the issue of slavery to the forefront through their writings, focusing specifically on the subjectivity of the slave. It will be analysed how the relationship between their literary form and sentimental rhetoric enhanced thoughts on anti-slavery. A brief biographical background will be given on both Equiano and Cowper, to establish their stance in the slave debate. Both works will then be critically analysed in detail to determine how they applied the rhetoric of sensibility to their writing.

Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, as he was known for most of his life, was born an Igbo in 1745 in what is now southeastern Nigeria. Most of what we know about Equiano comes from his autobiography The Interesting Narrative in which he describes his enslavement from the age of eleven. In 1762, Equiano returned to the West Indies, before he was able to save enough money to buy his freedom in 1766. The Interesting Narrative gives a first hand account of Equiano’s early life, and is one of the earliest ‘slave narratives’ written in English by an African. This provides an invaluable insight into the conditions of slavery, but it has been questioned the reliability of his account. Although there is evidence that proves most of what Equiano tells us is true, some parts are slightly distorted. Vincent Carretta has identified some of these points, which leaves us to question the dependability of Equiano’s account. Having said this, it is possible that Equiano could have been highlighting the conditions of other slaves he encountered during his lifetime, in an attempt to portray a fuller, more accurate picture of what slaves had to endure. The latter part of Equiano’s life was spent trying to relieve the conditions of other blacks, with the drive to abolish the African slave trade. He contributed to many literary publications and emerged as a credible author who knew that his identity as an Afro-Briton would enhance the reliability of The Interesting Narrative. The Interesting Narrative highlighted reasons why slavery should be abolished and at its height, was at the heart of the campaign to abolish slavery. Chapter 5 of The Interesting Narrative, ‘Various interesting instances of oppression, cruelty and extortion’, will be the main focus of this essay herein, to determine how Equiano uses the rhetoric of...
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