Thoughts on Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species


According to Ottobah Cugoano, a former slave from Ghana, Africans from his time were treated with the mindset that “…an African is not entitled to any competent degree of knowledge, or capable of imbibing any sentiments of probity; and that nature designed him for some inferior link in the chain, fitted only to be a slave” (59). This quote, found in Cugoano’s book titled Thoughts on Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, describes what Cugoano sees as a “white person’s” rationale for promoting the slave trade. As the slave trade in Britain is not a topic that we have touched upon much in class, I thought it would be interesting to investigate how its arguments and ideas relate to another social issue, particularly women’s rights, that we have discussed as well as the effectiveness of the rhetoric of this particular work.

One of the very first things I noticed upon my reading of this work was Cugoano’s argument that slaves are “unjustly deprived” of their “common rights of nature,” (58) a theme that seemed to strike a chord with both the Revolutionary and the Feminist writers that we have been reading. Something that seemed to further link this work to the other social issues was Cugoano’s description of slavery as a kind of “oppression” and “taking away… [of]…liberty,” (59) which is quite like Wollstonecraft’s argument in Vindication of the Rights of Woman that women are essentially oppressed into a “docility and a spaniel-like affection” (388) by men.

Another topic from this work that I wanted to investigate was its rhetoric; namely, with what it consisted and if it worked together effectively. The first portion of the writing presented a valid and strong argument. I think including ideas (such as liberty, common rights, and reason) that much of his audience had already heard before, presumably in regard to other social issues, was a useful way to get the audience to relate to and be able to understand his ideas. Towards the end, however, he seems to stray away from nearly all use of logos and focuses on pathos, mostly via a religious, semi-fire and brimstone approach as he explains that “by some way…every criminal [the enslavers]… who sin and rebel against God, against his laws of nature [freedom for all]…will each meet with some awful retribution at last, unless they repent of their iniquity… and will meet with the more severe rebuke of… God’s judgment” (60). This type of impassioned, possibly “over-the-top” argument tends spur potential supporters away from the ideas and cause them to possibly question the reliability of the author (as Wollstonecraft and Paine did with Burke), rendering it rather unconvincing.

Something else that would have spurned readers away from Cugoano’s argument was near the end of the work, where Cugoano proposes three things that the nation could do to “seek grace and repentance” from the slave trade. The one that shocked me the most was Cugoano’s suggestion that the nation should assign “days of mourning and fasting,” (60) in a way of promoting long-term guilt for all. Obviously, I don’t support slavery in the least bit but I found this idea quite extreme, particularly as he was suggesting it before slavery had even been abolished. Furthermore, I believe that his audience at the time would have thought in the same manner and by this point may have written off Cugoano’s reason and reliability completely.

Overall, Cugoano had very good intentions for writing, but as his emotions and passions overcame his reason, I don’t believe his argument would have been strong enough to change the minds of many. However, like many feminist writers from the Romantic period as well, even if their ideas were not popular at the time of publish, they paved the way for future thoughts, discussions, and hopefully actions for these social issues.

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