Charles Ignatius Sancho was a British writer, composer shopkeeper and abolitionist and is the first known Briton of African heritage to have voted in a general election.
Much of what we know about Sancho’s life comes from Joseph Jekyll’s 1782 biography, which accompanied a collection of Sancho's posthumously published letters. There are however doubt about the reliability of the biography and indeed it is contradicted in places by Sancho’s own writing.
According to Jekyll, Sancho was born in around 1729 aboard a slave ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, in what was known as the Middle Passage. Sancho however wrote in his letters that he was born in Africa. His mother died not long after in the Spanish colony of New Granada, corresponding to modern Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela. According to Jekyll, his father took his own life rather than live as a slave. Sancho therefore grew up an orphan and so was taken to London, where he was forced to work as a slave for three sisters at a house in Greenwich, where he lived from around 1731 to 1749. As an adult, Sancho wrote:
“the first part of my life was rather unlucky, as I was placed in a family who judged ignorance the best and only security for obedience”.
However while at Greenwich he met John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu who, impressed by Sancho's intellect, frankness, and amiability, encouraged his education and gave him books to read. Sancho's informal education made his lack of freedom in Greenwich unbearable. Following the Duke’s death in 1749 he fled to the Montagu House where he served as the butler for Mary Montagu (née Churchill), Duchess of Montagu until her death in 1751. He would then go on to act as valet to George Montagu, 1st Duke of Montagu, son-in-law of his earlier patron. He remained there until 1773. In 1758 Sancho married Anne Osborne, a West Indian woman with whom he had seven children.
By the late 1760s Sancho had become an accomplished writer, actor and composer of music and was considered by many to be a man of refinement. Over the course of his life he published four collections of compositions and a treatise entitled A Theory of Music. He was even the subject of a painting by Gainsborough. In 1766, at the height of the debate about slavery, Sancho wrote to 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!”
Laurence Sterne's widely publicised 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.
After leaving the Montagu household, Sancho and Anne opened a grocery store in Westminster, where Sancho, by then a well-known cultural figure, maintained an active social and literary life until his death in 1780. As an independent male property owner, with a house and grocery shop in London, he had the right to cast his vote for the Members of Parliament in the 1774 and 1780 elections. In doing so he became the first person of African descent to vote in a British general election.
He died on December 14th 1780. He was the first known person of African descent to have an obituary published in British newspapers. It was only after his death that his letters began to reach a large readership, when they were collected and published in 1782 as The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African. The two-volume collection sold well and delivered to a wide audience Sancho’s reflections on slavery and empire, as well as his own vexed experiences as a highly educated person of African origin living in London towards the end of the 18th century. A plaque to his memory o was unveiled on June 15th 2007, by Nick Raynsford, MP for Greenwich, on the remaining wall of Montague House on the south-west boundary of Greenwich Park. The plaque was funded by Friends of Greenwich Park to commemorate the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, made law in 1807.
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