The horror stories of the enslavement of Africans have often been told. There are also tales of triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.
Many born in servitude and forced to exist as classless citizens rose to prominence by dint of hard work, commitment to self-improvement and often a willingness to compromise.
His is not a name frequently mentioned in the month of February when the struggles and achievements of those of African origin are highlighted. But Ignatius Sancho’s story is one that is compelling.
Sancho was reportedly born in 1729 aboard a slave ship, and by the time of his death 51 years later, had become the first known black Briton to vote in a British election. He gained fame in his lifetime and after his death when his letters –– The Letters Of The Late Ignatius Sancho, An African –– were edited and published, providing one of the earliest accounts of the African Holocaust or the Maafa, written in English by an African.
Sancho’s mother died in the Spanish colony of New Granada, and his father committed suicide rather than live the harsh life aboard a slaver vessel. Sancho was baptized Ignatius and brought to England at the age of two to three sisters in Greenwich. The three women added “Sancho” to his name, after Don Quixote’s companion.
His life with them was unhappy, as they often psychologically abused him by threatening to return him to plantation slavery.
Fortunately, as a child he accidentally met the Duke of Montagu who lived on Blackheath. The duke, quite impressed by Sancho’s intellect, frankness and lively spirit, would often take him home and not only encouraged him to read, but also lent him books from his personal library.
When life in Greenwich became unbearable, Sancho ran away, seeking help from the now widowed Duchess of Montagu. She at first turned him away, but on learning he intended to shoot himself rather than return to his previous situation, she took him into her household as a butler until her death, “when he found himself, by Her Grace’s bequest and his own economy, possessed of £70 in money, and an annuity of £30”.
Sancho at first squandered his money on gambling and women. He even attempted acting, playing Othello and Oroonoko, two staple black characters of the 18th century stage, but a speech impediment aborted his success there.
When he lost his clothes at gambling, he reformed his life and married a West Indian woman named Anne Osborne, and became a devoted husband and father to his six children: Frances Joanna (1761-1815), Ann Alice (1763-1805), Elizabeth Bruce (1766-1837), Jonathan William (1768-1770), Lydia (1771-1776), Katherine Margaret (1773-1779) and William Leach Osborne
Anne and Ignatius were married on December 17, 1758, in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster. Sancho affectionately referred to his family as “the hen and chicks”, the “Sanchonets and Sanchonettas”. Sancho loved his wife and nearly always appended his wife’s greetings to his letters.
To one friend he wrote on September 15, 1770, that he hoped “Mrs Sancho will be as good as her word, and soon pay you a visit. I will trust her with you though she is the treasure of my soul”. In another, written on October 11, 1772 , he shared that he was “heartily tired of the country. The truth is Mrs Sancho and the girls are in town. I am not ashamed to own that I love my wife –– I hope to see you married and as foolish”.
Around the time of the birth of their third child, Sancho became a valet to the George Montagu, First Duke of Montagu of the second creation, son-in-law of his earlier patron. He remained there until 1773. It was in 1768, that Sancho’s portrait was painted by Thomas Gainsborough at the same time as the Duchess of Montagu sat for her portrait.
On January 29, 1774, Anne and Ignatius Sancho opened a grocer’s shop offering merchandise such as tobacco, sugar and tea at 19 Charles Street in London’s Mayfair, Westminster. As shopkeeper Sancho enjoyed more time to socialize, correspond with his many friends, share his enjoyment of literature, and attracted many people to his shop.
When it was quiet, Sancho sat at the back and wrote his famous letters. His wife was also literate and discerning and they would read and discussed his correspondences together. Sancho wrote and published a Theory Of Music and two plays.
Sancho was also the model for the character Shirna Cambo in the 1790 novel Memoirs And Opinions Of Mr Blenfield, in which he serves as a wise man and adviser to a young man who, like Smith was taken to visit him. During their friendship Cambo instructs Blenfield on filial duty, religion, literature, slavery and philanthropy.
This novel is perhaps the first instance in English literature when white men visit a black family in their home as equals and when black people are shown as integrated into the white English community.
Sancho was indeed a wise man, but he was also very self-deprecating. He referred to himself as a “poor Negro”, a “blackamoor”, “a poor African”, “a fat old fellow” and “Sancho The Big”. He signed his letter to the newspapers as Africanus. However, his self-mockery was underpinned by deadly seriousness against the Maafa.
Well aware he was fortunate to have escaped West Indian slavery, he spoke against white supremacy system of slavery as a “subject which sours my blood”. He read the latest books and pamphlets against the Maafa, some sent to him by friends. He thanked a friend in a letter stating: “For your kindness in sending the books, that upon the unchristian and most diabolical usage of my brother Negroes, the illegality . . . the horrid wickedness of the traffic . . . the cruel carnage and depopulation of the human species . . . . The perusal affected me more than I can express . . . .”
Sancho’s life in England was punctuated with visits to the theatre, fishing in Scotland, celebrating his children’s birthdays. He enjoyed reading good books (and greatly admired the work of Phyllis Wheatley), his wife’s solicitude and intelligence, and smoking a pipe. He had a brand of tobacco named after him –– Sancho’s Best Trinidado.
He wrote letters nearly to the end of his life, recording his decline through fever, asthma, dropsy and gout, many of his symptoms probably brought on by obesity.
When he died on December 14, 1780, at the age of 51 and was buried in Broadway, Westminster, he became the first African to be given an obituary in the British Press. His letters were collected and published by one of his correspondents, Miss F. Crewe, in 1782, and sold so fast that the Monthly Review had to wait for the second printing the following year to review it.
There were over 600 subscribers to the book, including nobility; and Anne Sancho, who kept on the grocer’s shop, received £500 for its publication.
Son William published the fifth edition of Sancho’s Letters in 1803. He transformed the family shop in Westminster into a printing and publishing venture.
Sancho features on the list of 100 Great Black Britons.
A plaque to the memory of Sancho was unveiled on June 15, 2007, on the remaining wall of Montague House on the south-west boundary of Greenwich Park. A second plaque to his memory is on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.