Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729 – 1780) was a celebrated writer, abolitionist, grocer and composer. He is perhaps best known for being the first Briton of African descent to have voted in a British parliamentary election.
Though born into slavery in the West Indies, Sancho was taken to London and ultimately educated under the employment of John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu. Sancho blossomed into a celebrated social commentator and man of letters.
When he passed away in 1780, The Gazetter commemorated Sancho as a “grocer and tea-dealer of Charles-street, Westminster; a man whose generosity and benevolence were far beyond his humble station.” It was likely the first obituary ever written about a black Briton.
The most substantial source relating to Sancho’s early years is a 1782 posthumous biography written by Joseph Jekyll. It’s worth noting that the accuracy of Jekyll’s accounts has been criticised in recent years. In Jekyll’s narrative, Sancho was born in the late 1720s on a slave ship traversing the middle passage from Guinea in Africa to the Spanish West Indies in the Caribbean. Sancho himself, however, alluded to having been born in Africa in one of his letters.
Apparently orphaned from a young age, Sancho was taken to Greenwich, London, as a toddler to serve in a wealthy family’s household. One regular visitor to Sancho’s employers, John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu, encouraged Sancho to read and educate himself.
In 1749, after more than a decade in Greenwich, Sancho fled the Greenwich house for Montagu’s grand London residence. Sancho then worked as a valet for Mary, Duchess of Montagu, and later her son-in-law, George Montagu, until the early 1770s.
Writer and composer
Though Sancho wasn’t educated while enslaved, he later discovered a voracious appetite for reading, making full use of the Montagu’s library to educate himself. And later, while working at the Montagu household, Sancho acquainted himself with many of the Duke and Duchess’ visitors, striking up correspondences and becoming a highly articulate man of letters.
In 1780, after Sancho’s death, collections of his letters were published. Sancho earned renown for his eye-witness accounts of the escalating unrest that swept London during the 1780 Gordon Riots. He was also recognised for his insightful analyses of 18th-century politics, society and culture.
A man of many talents, Sancho was also a music composer – likely one of the first black composers to publish collections in western Europe. In total, Sancho published four collections of songs and compositions, and he also penned A Theory of Music (of which no copy is known to survive today).
Sancho was a driven and proactive abolitionist. In the mid-1760s, he requested that the Irish author Laurence Sterne lend his pen to the growing abolitionist movement. He also lobbied newspapers and other influential figures to support the abolition of slavery.
As both a former slave and a highly articulate black Briton, Sancho refuted the then-popular idea of Europeans’ inherent racial superiority. His accounts of the slave trade painted a vivid picture of the harm it caused and the violence it inevitably relied on.
In one of his letters on the slave trade, Sancho condemned “the Christians’ abominable traffic for slaves and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the African Kings – encouraged by their Christian customers who carry them guns to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.”
In 1774, Sancho put the money earned during his employment with the Duchess of Montagu towards purchasing a shop at 19 Charles Street (now King Charles Street) in Westminster. Sancho ran the grocers with his wife, Anne Osborne, who he had married in 1758. The pair had 7 children together.
Sancho’s store is said to have stocked products such as sugar, tobacco and rum – goods most likely produced on slave plantations in the Americas and West Indies. While working as a shopkeeper, Sancho continued with his writing correspondences and his musical endeavours.
Undoubtedly, Sancho still faced discrimination as a black man in 18th-century London. A companion of Sancho’s, William Stevenson, later reflected on a notable incident:
We were walking through Spring gardens passage, when, a small distance from before us, a young Fashionable said to his companion, loud enough to be heard, “Smoke Othello!”
This did not escape my friend Sancho, who immediately placed himself across the path before him, exclaimed with a thundering voice, and a countenance which awed the delinquent, “Aye, Sir, such Othellos you meet with but once in a century,” clapping his hand upon his goodly round paunch. “Such Iagos as you, we meet with in every dirty passage. Proceed, Sir!”
By the 1770s, Sancho was a financially independent male homeowner. As such, he qualified to vote in British parliamentary elections. When he voted in 1774, he became the first known Briton of African descent to have voted in a British election. Sancho also voted in 1780, supporting Charles James Fox, a renowned abolitionist.
Death and legacy
Sancho died on 14 December 1780, likely from gout, and was buried in St Margaret’s churchyard in Westminster. Two years after his death, Sancho’s letters were published under the title The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African. They earned widespread acclaim and would go on to be republished a number of times.
Sancho is thought to be the first known black Briton to have received a newspaper obituary. Published by The Gazetter on the day after his death, it read:
About six yesterday morning died suddenly, Mr. Ignatius Sancho, grocer, and tea-dealer, of Charles-street, Westminster, a man whose generosity and benevolence were far beyond his humble station. He was honoured with the friendship of the late Rev. Mr. Sterne, and several of the literati of these times.