Ignatius Sancho

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Charles Ignatius Sancho
Ignatius Sancho, 1768.jpg
Oil painting by Thomas Gainsborough, 1768, National Gallery of Canada
Bornc. 1729
on a slave ship in the Middle Passage, Atlantic Ocean.
Died14 December 1780(1780-12-14) (aged 50–51)
London, UK
Occupationwriter, composer
Known forinfluence over abolitionists, his published correspondence
Spouse(s)Anne Osborne[1]
ChildrenFrances Joanna (1761–1815), Ann Alice (1763–1805), Elizabeth Bruce (1766–1837), Jonathan William (1768–1770), Lydia (1771–1776), Katherine Margaret (1773–1779), William Leach Osborne (1775–1810)[2][3]
Ignatius Sancho Signature.svg

Charles Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729? – 14 December 1780) was a British composer, actor, and writer. He is the only Briton of African heritage known to have voted in the elections in 1774 and 1780 for members of parliament in Westminster. He gained fame in his time as "the extraordinary Negro", and to eighteenth-century British abolitionists he became a symbol of the humanity of Africans and immorality of the slave trade.[4] The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, edited and published two years after his death, is one of the earliest accounts of African slavery written in English by a former slave.


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 in the Spanish colony of New Granada, corresponding to modern Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela. His father reportedly killed himself 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 in Greenwich, where he lived from ca. 1731 to 1749. John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu (of the first creation) (1690–1749), impressed by Sancho's intellect, frankness, and his amiability, not only encouraged him to read, but also lent him books from his personal library at Blackheath. Sancho's informal education made his lack of freedom in Greenwich unbearable, and he ran away to the Montagus in 1749. For two years until her death in 1751, Sancho worked as the butler for Mary Montagu (née Churchill), Duchess of Montagu, at Montagu House, where he flourished by immersing himself in music, poetry, reading, and writing.[5][6] At her death in 1751 he received an annuity of £30 and a year's salary, which he quickly squandered.[5]

During the 1760s Sancho married a West Indian woman, Ann Osborne. He became a devoted husband and father. They had seven 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 (1775–1810).[2] Around the time of the birth of their third child, Sancho became a valet to the George Montagu, 1st Duke of Montagu (of the second creation), son-in-law of his earlier patron.[5] He remained there until 1773.

In 1768 Thomas Gainsborough painted a portrait of Sancho at the same time as the Duchess of Montagu sat for her portrait by the artist.[1][notes 1] By the late 1760s Sancho had already become accomplished and was considered by many to be a man of refinement.[5]

In 1766, at the height of the debate about slavery, Sancho wrote to Laurence Sterne[7] encouraging the famous writer to use his pen to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade.[8]

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 Reverend Laurence 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 oppression of an African servant in a sausage shop in Lisbon that he had visited.[9] Laurence 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 endeavor to make ’em so."[9]

Following the publication of the Sancho-Sterne letters, Sancho became widely known as a man of letters.[1]

Sancho, an African participant and voter in Westminster, noted that despite being in Britain since the age of two he felt he was "only a lodger, and hardly that." In other writings he describes: "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."[10][11]

A Portrait now believed to be of a young Ignatius Sancho.[12][13] It was previously believed to have depicted Olaudah Equiano.

In 1774 with help from Montagu, Sancho, suffering from ill health with gout, opened a greengrocery shop, offering merchandise such as tobacco, sugar and tea, at 19 Charles Street in London's Mayfair, Westminster.[14][notes 2] These were goods then mostly produced by slaves.[15]

As shopkeeper Sancho enjoyed more time to socialise, correspond with his many friends, share his enjoyment of literature, and he attracted many people to his shop. He wrote and published a Theory of Music and two plays. As a financially independent male householder living in Westminster, 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". He supported the monarchy and British forces in the American Revolutionary War.

Among his acquaintances were celebrated figures such as Thomas Gainsborough, the Shakespearean actor David Garrick, violin virtuoso Felice Giardini, the preacher Dr. Dodd,[5] the renowned sculptor Joseph Nollekens, and the novelist Laurence Sterne. Nollekens gave Sancho a plaster cast of his c. 1766 marble bust of Laurence Sterne (National Portrait Gallery, London). Sancho received many prominent visitors at his shop, including statesman and abolitionist Charles James Fox PC (1749–1806), 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 contributing to the trading of slaves with the colonies of Britain's wartime enemies, thus eliminating two-thirds of the slave trade passing through British ports.[16][notes 3]

Ignatius Sancho died from the effects of gout on 14 December 1780. He was the first person of African descent known to be given an obituary in the British press.

Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho[edit]

Plaque in King Charles Street, City of Westminster marking the location of Sancho's grocery store

While his correspondence often included domestic issues, also commented on the political and literary life in 18th-century Britain,[3][8] 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 Catholic enfranchisement grew into a violent mob of 100, 000 looting and burning parts of London.[17]

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 – ths 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 with 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 2000 subscribing to it. His widow received more than £500 in royalties. Joseph Jekyll provided the memoirs to the first edition, which was reprinted with each additional edition including the fifth edition published by Sancho's son in 1803.[18]

His son, William Leach Osborne, inherited the shop and transformed it into a printing and book-selling business. He printed a fifth edition of Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho with Memoirs of His Life by Joseph Jekyll[14] and the frontispiece engraving by Bartolozzi,[19] in 1803 at this shop on Charles Street.

''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....''[20]

On slavery[edit]

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 friend, John was a London bookbinder and bookseller.[21]

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.[21][22]


Plaque in Greenwich Park


  1. ^ According to King (1997:28-9), there is an inscription by antiquarian William Stevenson on the back of the canvas stating that Gainsborough completed the portrait in one hour and 40 minutes on 29 November 1768. Stevenson was the person Sancho corresponded with most frequently. This was the same time as the Duchess had her portrait done. Representations of African subjects typically reflected the artist's ideological view of slavery. Few African people were portrayed with the depth of feeling evoked in this portrait. Gainsborough conveys both the warmth and humour of Sancho's personality and his refined gentlemanly qualities. This is a sharp contrast to contemporary stereotypical images of African people. For this reason Gainsborough's portrait is exceptional. King argued that the Sancho portrait is the most accomplished portrait of an African person in British portraiture of the time (King 1997:30). Bartolozzi's 1781 engraving based on Gainsborough's portrait of Sancho, was used as the frontispiece when Sancho's Letters were published.
  2. ^ This is now a heritage site included in tours of Westminster. It houses the Foreign and Commonwealth office and is decorated with reliefs depicting the liberation of Africa from slavery and a portrait of William Wilberforce.
  3. ^ Charles James Fox was Britain's first foreign secretary (1782, 1783, 1806).


  1. ^ a b c King, Reyahn (1997). Ignatius Sancho: an African man of letters. London, UK: National Portrait Gallery. p. 17.
  2. ^ a b Carey, Brycchan. "Ignatius Sancho's Friends and Family". Retrieved 8 January 2013.
  3. ^ a b Edwards, Paul Geoffrey; Rewt, Polly (1994). The Letters of Ignatius Sancho: I Sancho. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press.
  4. ^ Carey, Brycchan. "Ignatius Sancho: African Man of Letters". Brycchan Carey. Retrieved 2 March 2013.
  5. ^ a b c d e Ellis, Markman (1996). The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 57.
  6. ^ Walvin, James (1997). "Ignatius Sancho: The Man and His Times". In King, Reyahn (ed.). Ignatius Sancho: an African Man of Letters. London, UK: National Portrait Gallery. p. 96.
  7. ^ Carey, Brycchan (March 2003). "The extraordinary Negro': Ignatius Sancho, Joseph Jekyll, and the Problem of Biography" (PDF). 26 (1). Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies: 1–13. Retrieved 8 January 2013.
  8. ^ a b Phillips, Caryl (December 1996). "Director's Forward". Ignatius Sancho: an African Man of Letters. London: National Portrait Gallery. p. 12.
  9. ^ a b "Ignatius Sancho and Laurence Sterne" (PDF). A Web Companion to The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Norton.
  10. ^ "Sancho's Letters, with Memoirs of His Life".
  11. ^ p83. "England, Slaves and Freedom, 1776–1838".
  12. ^ "Trading faces". BBC.
  13. ^ "Portrait of an African (probably Ignatius Sancho, 1729–1780)". artuk.org.
  14. ^ a b c City Council of Westminster. "Foreign & Commonwealth Office and King Charles Street and Ignatius Sancho". Audio Guide to the Road to Abolition Trail.
  15. ^ Carey, Brycchan. "Ignatius Sancho: African Man of Letters". Brycchan Carey. Retrieved 2 March 2013.
  16. ^ Powell, Jim (September 1996). "Charles James Fox, Valiant Voice for Liberty". The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty. 46 (9).
  17. ^ Paul Edwards (1981). "Black People in Britain: Olaudah Equiano and Igantius Sancho". History Today. Black People in Britain. 31 (9).
  18. ^ Carey, Brycchan. "Joseph Jekyll – Ignatius Sancho's Biographer".
  19. ^ Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho with Memoirs of His Life by Joseph Jekyll.
  20. ^ Ignatius Sancho. "Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African".
  21. ^ a b Carey, Brycchan. "Sancho's Views on Empire and Slavery".
  22. ^ Ignatius Sancho (1778). "Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho".
  23. ^ "Ignatius Sancho", 100 Great Black Britons.
  24. ^ Madin, John, "Trading faces", BBC - Devon - Abolition, 26 February 2007.
  25. ^ "Portrait of an African (probably Ignatius Sancho, 1729–1780)", Art UK.
  26. ^ Hemley, Matthew. "Paterson Joseph one-man show to play UK ahead of US tour", The Stage., 15 July 2015.
  27. ^ Sulcas, Roslyn. "Paterson Joseph Brings Charles Ignatius Sancho to Life", The New York Times, 11 December 2015.
  28. ^ "Leon Levy BAM Digital Archive: Production: Sancho: An Act of Remembrance [2015f.01270]". levyarchive.bam.org.
  29. ^ "Wiltons Music Hall - Sancho: An Act of Remembrance".

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]