A Manifestation Of Oppression: William Cowper And Olaudah Equiano
During the Victorian Era, the complexities of society became its defining trait that would forever leave a mark in the pages of history. Categories and subjects such as gender roles, ethnicity, race, class, and age were all heavily influenced. In particular, ethnicity and race. During the era, Europe was on the conquest of who could control who more and unfortunately, it resulted in more harm than good. European control of the Slave Trade became a key principle and would revolutionize the progression of the world. People from Africa and Latin America were captured and enslaved by their White counterparts. This created a permanent gap in our society. The power of European descent was defined as superior to other races. The difference in the color of skin and your ethnic descent mattered more to your livelihood than your heart of character and integrity. It was oppression at its most ignorant state and consequently, many sought to be a voice for the unheard. Many forms of expression were present in modern literature. Authors and Poets alike defied Slavery. William Cowper was once an English poet and hymnodist. He wrote a variety of anti-slavery poems in aid of the Abolitionist campaign. He wrote a poem called ‘The Negro’s Complaint’ which swiftly grew to be very famous due to its use of ballad form and the author’s assertive perspective gave its title of one of the most powerful abolition poems. In addition to Cowper’s exemplar role, was Olaudah Equiano. Equiano was an author and abolitionist. Oppressed as a youngster, he was sold on three occasions however bought his freedom in 1766. As a freedman in London, Equiano distributed his life account, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”, which portrayed the repulsions of the subjection of ethnicity and race in society. Both of their works alleviated societal stress. The turmoil that Slavery had brought not only shifted ideas and beliefs but did it to an almost unfathomable point of return. It was the roles of Abolitionists like Cowper and Equiano to forbid the passage of slavery. In their craft, they signified the issue at the time, injustice. William Cowper and Olaudah Equiano, through their literary works, address how race and ethnicity influence the creation of power and oppression in society, specifically through the use of ballad elements, ethos, and logos.
In “A Negros Complaint”, readers are greeted by a ballad narrative style of poetry, a simple way of saying that the poem tells a story. This key element became its most defining poetic quality. During the beginning of slavery, the desolate oppression that was placed upon non-European individuals was counted as purposeful. Europeans truly believed that dominance was god-given, and it became the one and the only story to be told. However, this poem told its own story that contradicted the idea of European righteousness. On one verse, the Cowper addresses the religious aspect of European oppression, stating, “Is there, as ye sometimes tell us, Is there One who reigns on high? Has he bid you buy and sell us Speaking from his throne in the sky?” (Cowper, lines 25-29). Cowper questions his intended audience, slave owners, asking them through the perspective of a slave, what veridical form of justification do they have besides the empty words of men. By giving a story, audiences are set to face to face with what seems to be another person rather than another page. This not only causes the audience to question their beliefs to see the reality but provides a sense of realism by giving the slave a voice, something never expected. Cowper then tells a tale of horrid and inhumane malice. “Me to torture, me to task? Fleecy locks, and black complexion Cannot forfeit nature’s claim; Skins may differ, but affection Dwells in white and black the same.” (Cowper, lines 12-16) The narrator states that the color of his complexion is of nature’s doing, and it does not define the way he is treated. Yet, he is subjected to the malice of white men because of the pigment of his flesh and texture of his hair. This narration causes the readers to contemplate and self-reflect on their actions faced to face with this poem and how it relates to God. In hopes, Cowper wants salve owners to realize the hellish behavior they partake in and to discontinue it. Altogether, it demonstrates how ethnicity and race have rendered oppressed thoughts voiceless.
Ethos, derived from Greek literature is a form of rhetorical appeal that deals with the idea of credibility. This is achieved as the slave narrative is a first-hand experience. In “The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano”, Equiano vividly describes his journey as a slave, which is a gruesome and inhumane process. On one occasion, he accounts for a time where he witnessed the use of a torture device called the “Iron muzzle” (Equiano, page 54), a torturing device that was used in front of him on a pregnant black woman, rendering her unable to eat or drink. It made him dread more than he could have imagined, filled with great fear of a wrong action towards his owners. This story goes on for decades of his life to induce the perfect form of ethos. He goes on to list every aspect of his unjust upbringing and this makes the audience believe and trust Equiano more as an author and more specifically, a person. He is able to strike the audience’s sense of truth and convinces them of what has been done to him to be nothing less than inhumane.
Finally, Equiano uses the rhetorical appeal of Pathos, another Greek word that simply translates into emotion. In his narrative, Equiano uses this rhetorical appeal to evoke specific feelings out of the readers. He describes the ship he was boarded on, where he and his natives were kept and its horrors. When he was first kidnapped and forced to take passage to Europe, he accounted, “The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered a whole scene of horror almost inconceivable,” ( Equiano, page 48). This causes the intended audience, Europeans, to feel pity and guilt for the ways slaves were treated. That he too is a human, not an object or cattle. In addition, he also uses certain diction to draw out more feelings in readers. Adjectives such as “horror”, “evil”, and “wretched” (Equiano, pages 36, 14, 47) become emotionally brimming words. Such a technique is given in its effectiveness in Equiano’s purpose for writing his story. To immerse the minds of others on the malice he faced as an ethnic difference in a sea of white. And thus, it demonstrates how the denomination of one’s native results in their oppression within the Victorian Era.
This was a time of power and control from the European superpower. Slave Trade occurred and it occurred in a time of rapid idealistic development. Where defining stigmas still lasts today. Because of it, the world’s worst mistakes and judgment calls were made. However, it does not sway from the fact that because of slavery, the world would not be where it is today. The labor and economic opportunity, as horrid as it was, was ripe with fruits of fortune. It increased the production of goods and bloomed the flowers of trade. Today, non-European descent are all culturally unique and form a world far better than it was before. Yet, questions on what could have or what should have happened are on the table. What would this world look like if the power of ethnicity and race did not affect the actions of oppression within society?
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