Who was Ignatius Sancho?

Learn about the life of British composer, actor and writer. Written by Patrick Vernon

By Google Arts & Culture

Ignatius Sancho is said to have been born in 1729 on board a slave ship that was sailing from Guinea to the Spanish Caribbean.

According to the biography written by Joseph Jekyll, his mother died while he was an infant, and his father committed suicide to escape enslavement. Aged around two, he was brought to London and was forced to work as a slave for three sisters living in Greenwich.

As an adult Sancho recalled that the sisters ‘judged ignorance the best and only security for obedience and believed to enlarge the mind of their slave would go near to emancipate his person.’

Ignatius Sancho by Francesco Bartolozzi|Thomas Gainsborough|William Sancho|Ignatius SanchoThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

During this time, he met John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu (1690-1749), who lived nearby in Blackheath, who admired Sancho’s ,‘native frankness of manner as yet unbroken by servitude,’ and gave him books and encouraged his education.

After the Duke’s death, Sancho ran away from the house in Greenwich and persuaded the Duke’s widow to employ him as a butler. He served the Duchess until her death, leaving him £70 and an annuity of £30. He remained in the service of the Montagu family for 20 years.

Sancho was free to indulge in his passion for reading, the theatre and music. He composed music and appeared on the stage. He befriended David Garrick, the great English actor and was taken up by London’s artistic and literary circles, and was famous enough to be painted by Thomas Gainsborough, one of the century’s most important artists, in 1768.

He began a friendship with the novelist Laurence Sterne (author of the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy) in 1766, when he wrote to express his admiration for his work and asked him to write something on behalf of enslaved Africans. Sterne replied to Sancho and kept copies of the letters which were published in 1775.

Sancho married Anne Osborne, a Caribbean woman and had seven children with her. He left the service of the Montagus in 1773 and used the annuity left to him by the duchess to open a grocery shop in Charles Street, Westminster.

As a business owner he was eligible to vote, which he did 1780, the year that he died.

Sancho’s achievements, his published letters and musical compositions, and the friendships he cultivated allowing him to move within fashionable Georgian society would not have been possible had he not taken advantage of opportunities presented to him though education.

His letters show he was aware that his position in society was unusual, and that it was the moral imperative of diasporic Africans like himself to prove to whites that Africans possessed genius.

His death in 1780 was announced in the Gentleman’s Magazine; his obituary was listed among those people deemed to be ‘considerable persons.’

His book, which was published two years after his death attracted over twelve hundred subscribers and sold out the first edition

Ignatius Sancho was a member of Georgian London’s literati, a cultural icon and businessman. Because of his education, social mobility and stability, his life was exceptional by eighteenth century standards. He gained posthumous fame as a man of letters, particularly his correspondence with the novelist Laurence Sterne, and is the first known Black man to have voted in Britain.

If Sancho was alive today he would probably a regular columnist in The Times, bestselling author and perhaps even have his own radio show on Radio 2 or 4 as a social commentator discussing issues like democracy and political parties, Black Lives Matter and the impact of globalisation in Africa.

Ignatius Sancho illustrated timeline by Kingsley Nebechi

Virtually explore the address where Ignatius Sancho ran his grocer shop, at 20 Charles Street, London, W1J 5DT.

Further information about 100 Great Black Britons can be found at www.100greatblackbritons.co.uk

Ignatius Sancho by Francesco Bartolozzi|Thomas Gainsborough|William Sancho|Ignatius SanchoThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Credits: Story

Text by Patrick Vernon

Illustration by Kingsley Nebechi

Credits: All media
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