Ignatius Sancho

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Charles Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729 – 14 December 1780) was a British abolitionist, writer and composer. Born on a slave ship in the Atlantic, Sancho was sold into slavery in the Spanish colony of New Grenada. After his parents died, Sancho's owner took the two-year-old orphan to England and gifted him to three Greenwich sisters, where he remained their slave for eighteen years. Unable to bear being a servant to them, Sancho ran away to the Montagu House, whose owner had taught him how to read and encouraged Sancho's budding interest in literature. After spending some time as a servant in the household, Sancho left and started his own business as a shopkeeper, while also starting to write and publish various essays, plays and books.
Sancho quickly became involved in the nascent British abolitionist movement, which sought to outlaw both the slave trade and the institution of slavery itself, and he quickly became one of the most devoted supporters of the movement. Sancho's status as a male property-owner meant he was legally qualified to vote in a general-election, a right he exercised in 1774 and 1780, becoming the first known Black Briton to have voted in Britain. Gaining fame in Britain as "the extraordinary Negro", to British abolitionists, Sancho became a symbol of the humanity of Africans and the immorality of the slave trade and slavery. Sancho died in 1780, with his The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, edited and published two years after his death, being one of the earliest accounts of African slavery written in English from a first-hand experience.
Charles Ignatius Sancho was born on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, in what was known as the Middle Passage. His mother died not long after arriving in the Spanish colony of New Granada, which formed parts of modern-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela. His father reportedly took his own life rather than live as a slave. Sancho's owner took the young orphan, barely two years old, to England and gave him to three unmarried sisters living together in Greenwich, where he lived from 1731 to 1749. The Duke of Montagu, a frequent visitor to the sisters, became impressed by Sancho's intellect, frankness, and amiability. The Duke not only encouraged Sancho to read, but also lent him books from his personal library at Blackheath.
Sancho's informal education made his lack of freedom at Greenwich unbearable, and he ran away to the Montagu House in 1749. For two years until her death in 1751, Sancho worked as a butler for the Duchess of Montagu at her residence, where he immersed himself in music, poetry, reading, and writing. Upon her death in 1751, Sancho received an annuity of £30 (about £7000 in 2020 according to the Bank of England inflation calculator) and a year's salary. During the 1760s, Sancho married a West Indian woman, Anne Osborne, becoming a devoted husband and father. They had seven children: Frances Joanna, Ann Alice, Elizabeth Bruce, Jonathan William, Lydia, Katherine Margaret, and William Leach Osborne. Around the time of the birth of their third child, Sancho became a valet to George Montagu, the son-in-law of his previous patron. Sancho remained a valet until 1773.
In 1768, British artist Thomas Gainsborough painted a portrait of Sancho at the same time as the Duchess of Montagu sat for her portrait by Gainsborough as well. By the late 1760s, Sancho had already become well accomplished and was considered by many to be a man of refinement. In 1766, at the height of the debate about slavery, Sancho wrote to Anglo-Irish novelist Laurence Sterne encouraging the famous writer to use his pen to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade.
That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many – but if only of one – Gracious God! – what a feast to a benevolent heart!
In July 1766 Sancho's letter was received by Sterne shortly after he had just finished writing a conversation between his fictional characters, Corporal Trim and his brother Tom in Tristram Shandy, wherein Tom described the mistreatment of an African servant in a sausage shop in Lisbon that he had visited. Sterne's widely publicised 27 July 1766 response to Sancho's letter became an integral part of 18th-century abolitionist literature.
There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl, and my eyes had scarce done smarting with it, when your letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me – but why her brethren? – or your’s, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face about St. James’s, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ’ere mercy is to vanish with them? – but ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavour to make ’em so."
Following the publication of the Sancho-Sterne letters, Sancho became widely known as a man of letters. Sancho, a British subject and voter in Westminster, noted that despite being in the country since the age of two he felt he was "only a lodger, and hardly that." In other writings he describes his life: "Went by water – had a coach home – were gazed at – followed, etc. etc. – but not much abused." On another occasion, he writes: "They stopped us in the town and most generously insulted us."
In 1774 with help from Montagu, Sancho, suffering from ill health with gout, opened a grocery shop, offering merchandise such as tobacco, sugar and tea, at 19 Charles Street in London's Mayfair, Westminster. These were goods then mostly produced by slaves in the West Indies.
—Record of Ignatius Sancho's vote in the general election, October 1774, British Library.
As a shopkeeper Sancho enjoyed more time to socialise, correspond with his many friends, share his enjoyment of literature, and his shop had many visitors. He wrote and published a Theory of Music and two plays. As a financially independent male householder living in London, he qualified to vote in the parliamentary elections of 1774 and 1780; he was the first person of African origin known to have voted in Britain. At this time he also wrote letters and in newspapers, under his own name and under the pseudonym "Africanus".
Among his acquaintances were figures such as Thomas Gainsborough, the Shakespearean actor David Garrick, violin virtuoso Felice Giardini, the preacher William Dodd, the sculptor Joseph Nollekens, and the novelist Laurence Sterne. Nollekens gave Sancho a plaster cast of his 1766 marble bust of Sterne. Sancho received many prominent visitors at his shop, including statesman and abolitionist Charles James Fox, who successfully steered a resolution through Parliament pledging it to abolish the slave trade. He oversaw a Foreign Slave Trade Bill in spring 1806 that prohibited British subjects from participating in the trading of slaves with the colonies of Britain's wartime enemies, thus eliminating two-thirds of the slave trade passing through British ports.
Ignatius Sancho died from the effects of gout on 14 December 1780 and was buried in the churchyard of St Margaret's, Westminster. There is no memorial at the church, as the grave stones (which lie flat) in the churchyard were covered over with grass in 1880 and no inscription was found for him when a record was made of the existing epitaphs. He was the first person of African descent known to be given an obituary in the British press.
While his correspondence often included domestic issues, it also commented on the political and literary life in 18th-century Britain. One of his more famous series of letters includes his eye-witness accounts of the Gordon Riots in June 1780. The angry mob passed outside his shop on Charles Street. The protest that began when Protestants protested against parliamentary extension of Roman Catholic enfranchisement grew into a violent mob of 100,000 looting and burning parts of London.
There is at this present moment at least a hundred thousand poor, miserable, ragged rabble, from 12 to 60 years of age, with blue cockades in their hats – besides half as many women and children, all parading the streets, the bridge, the park, ready for any and every mischief. Gracious God! What's the matter now? I was obliged to leave off – the shouts of the mob, the horrid clashing of swords, and the clutter of a multitude in swiftest motion drew me to the door, when everyone in the street was employed in shutting up shop. It is now just five o'clock – the ballad-singers are exhasting their musical talents with the downfall of Popery, S-h and N-h, Lord S-h narrowly escaped with his life about an hour since' the mob seized his chariot going to the house, broke his glasses and, in struggling to get his lordship out, they somehow have cut his face.
In 1782 Frances Crewe, a correspondent of Sancho, arranged for 160 of his letters to be published in the form of two volumes entitled The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African. The book sold very well, with more than 2,000 subscribing to it. His widow received in royalties more than £500, equivalent to £63,032 in 2019. Joseph Jekyll provided a memoir of Sancho for the first edition, and four more editions had been issued by 1803.
Sancho's son, William Leach Osborne Sancho, inherited the shop on Charles Street, Mayfair, and transformed it into a printing and book-selling business. In 1803 at this shop he printed a fifth edition of Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho with Memoirs of His Life by Joseph Jekyll, with a frontispiece engraving by Bartolozzi.
''I am Sir an Affrican – with two ffs – if you please – & proud am I to be of a country that knows no politicians – nor lawyers – nor [word deleted] ... nor thieves of any denomination save Natural....''
Sancho was unusually blunt in his response to a letter from Jack Wingrave, John Wingrave's son. Jack wrote about his negative reaction to people of colour based on his own experience in India during the 1770s. Sancho's response was as such:
I am sorry to observe that the practice of your country (which as a resident I love – and for its freedom – and for the many blessings I enjoy in it – shall ever have my warmest wishes, prayers and blessings); I say it is with reluctance, that I must observe your country's conduct has been uniformly wicked in the East – West-Indies – and even on the coast of Guinea. The grand object of English navigators – indeed of all Christian navigators – is money – money – money – for which I do not pretend to blame them – Commerce was meant by the goodness of the Deity to diffuse the various goods of the earth into every part – to unite mankind in the blessed chains of brotherly love – society – and mutual dependence: the enlightened Christian should diffuse the riches of the Gospel of peace – with the commodities of his respective land – Commerce attended with strict honesty – and with Religion for its companion – would be a blessing to every shore it touched at. In Africa, the poor wretched natives blessed with the most fertile and luxuriant soil – are rendered so much the more miserable for what Providence meant as a blessing: the Christians' abominable traffic for slaves and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the petty Kings encouraged by their Christian customers who carry them strong liquors to enflame their national madness – and powder – and bad fire-arms – to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.
Facs. Set for the harpsichord. (London: Thompson, 2014). Interpreted by V. Webster, illus. D. Durant, research S Petchy and P Cooper. Pbk 97 pp.
By Ignatius Sancho, 191 pp; ed. & intro. by S. Petchey (64 pp). 22 dances & facs. of their music and two more pieces. A recording of these dances is available from Green Ginger at ISBN 978-1-5272-3701-8.