The Life of Olaudah Equiano


Olaudah Equiano

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The Life of Olaudah Equiano: Ethos 2 key examples

Definition of Ethos
Ethos, along with logos and pathos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective speaking or writing). Ethos is an argument that appeals to... read full definition
Ethos, along with logos and pathos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective speaking or writing). Ethos is... read full definition
Ethos, along with logos and pathos, is one of the three "modes of persuasion" in rhetoric (the art of effective... read full definition
Explanation and Analysis—Deference and Respect:

Equiano opens the dedication by professing his "deference and respect" to "my lords and gentlemen." In a roundabout way, Equiano builds his ethos as an advocate for Black and African people:

To the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the Commons
of the Parliament of Great Britain.


PERMIT ME, with the greatest deference and respect, to lay at your feet the following genuine narrative; the chief design of which is to excite in your august assemblies a sense of compassion for the miseries which the Slave-Trade has entailed on my unfortunate countrymen.

People often associate ethos with aggrandizement, but Equiano knows that self-importance will not work for him with his particular audience. He is appealing to the British House of Commons, an overwhelmingly racist institution in charge of governing the British Empire. He wants this powerful body of white men to trust that his narrative is "genuine" and that it is representative of what many of his "unfortunate countrymen" experience under enslavement. Furthermore, he wants them to consider ending the slave trade, an institution that has almost surely added to the wealth and power that they themselves enjoy. Meanwhile, Equiano is a formerly enslaved Black African. The slave trade was propped up by enduring and sometimes contradictory stereotypes about Black people as uneducated, unintelligent, "uncivilized," disrespectful, manipulative, happy to be enslaved, and more. Equiano begins combating all these stereotypes on the very first page so that his audience will hear him out and reflect on what he has to say.

This method of building ethos through deference and respectability was common in 18th century appeals for Black people's freedom. In order to be taken seriously, Equiano knows that calling the House of Commons an "august assembly" will go farther than pointing out the guilt all its members bear for the suffering he has endured throughout his life. Equiano is sometimes accused of not going far enough in his critique of slavery because he advocates the "civilization" of Africans and celebrates his own assimilation. While there is room to criticize Equiano, it is also worth noting that he may not always be fully transparent about what he believes. It is too important to him not to alienate powerful white people who might be able to end the slave trade. Debates persist today over how far the performance of a "respectability" ethos can advance the liberation of people of color, especially Black people.

Chapter 8
Explanation and Analysis—Leadership Skills:

In Chapter 8, Equiano realizes that the ship is about to hit a large rock, but the captain will not take the emergency seriously. Through this scene, Equiano uses ethos to help make his case that Black people should be allowed to participate fully in a meritocratic economy:

[G]rowing quite enraged, I ran down to him again, and asked him why he did not come up, and what he could mean by all this? ‘The breakers,’ said I, ‘are around us, and the vessel is almost on the rock.’ With that he came on the deck with me, and tried to put the vessel about, and get her out of the current; but all to no purpose, the wind being very small.

The captain, of all people on the ship, ought to be skilled enough to notice when the ship is about to hit a rock. Even if he is not the first to notice, his job is explicitly to navigate the ship safely through the ocean: the news that there is a rock ahead should spur him to immediate action. The fact that Equiano is the first to notice the rock does not necessarily indicate that he is a more skilled navigator than the captain, but it does indicate that he has some of the skills necessary to captain a ship. His response to the situation certainly demonstrates better leadership and crisis management skills than Captain Phillips demonstrates. The captain waits to respond to the situation until it is too late for him to do anything to prevent a disaster. Meanwhile, after the ship strikes the rock, Equiano is the one who leads the crew through the harrowing experience. Everyone else wants to give up and drink, but Equiano makes enough repairs to keep the ship partially afloat while everyone uses the small lifeboat to make their way, over the course of many trips, to shore.

One of the key pieces of Equiano's argument against slavery is the idea that the economy would thrive even more if Black people were allowed to participate in it freely, rather than as enslaved laborers. Equiano lays the groundwork for that argument here by demonstrating that he not only has the skill to captain a ship, but furthermore that he would make a better captain than Captain Phillips or virtually any of the other men on the ship.

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