It’s always fun to play that game where you choose the person from history that you would most like to meet. Of course it would be fascinating to meet Cleopatra, or Socrates, or Dante, but language problems would hamper the encounter. So then among the English-speaking I could pick from warriors, composers, thinkers and writers who would doubtless have many great things to say, but who would probably feel little reason to share such thoughts with one as humble as me. Instead, I would to meet someone from history who, though having the special qualities that come with being memorable, would nevertheless be modest and sociable enough that I would feel comfortable in their company. The person I would choose would be Ignatius Sancho.
I first encountered Sancho at university, when I was investigating the background to my favourite novel, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Sterne’s great picaresque novel about nothing and everything was published in nine volumes over a period of eight years, 1759-1767. Between the volumes, the novel’s growing number of fans would anxiously debate how the story would develop in the next volume, and would write to the author with ideas and pleas. In July 1766 this letter was written to Sterne, in calculated imitation of Sterne’s own distinctive mixture of sentiment, wit and sentences peppered with dashes:
It would be an insult on your humanity (or perhaps look like it) to apologize for the liberty I am taking–I am one of those people whom the vulgar and illiberal call “Negurs.”–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.–A little reading and writing I got by unwearied application.–The latter part of my life has been–thro’ God’s blessing, truly fortunate, having spent it in the service of one of the best families in the kingdom.–My chief pleasure has been books.–Philanthropy I adore.–How very much, good Sir, am I (amongst millions) indebted to you for the character of your amiable uncle Toby!–I declare, I would walk ten miles in the dog-days, to shake hands with the honest corporal.–Your Sermons have touch’d me to the heart, and I hope have amended it, which brings me to the point.–In your tenth discourse, page seventy-eight, in the second volume–is this very affecting passage–“Consider how great a part of our species–in all ages down to this–have been trod under the feet of cruel and capricious tyrants, who would neither hear their cries, nor pity their distresses.–Consider slavery–what it is–how bitter a draught–and how many millions are made to drink it!”–Of all my favorite authors, not one has drawn a tear in favour of my miserable black brethren–excepting yourself, and the humane author of Sir George Ellison.–I think you will forgive me;–I am sure you will applaud me for beseeching you to give one half hour’s attention to slavery, as it is at this day practised in our West Indies.–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!–and, sure I am, you are an epicurean in acts of charity.–You, who are universally read, and as universally admired–you could not fail–Dear Sir, think in me you behold the uplifted hands of thousands of my brother Moors.–Grief (you pathetically observe) is eloquent;–figure to yourself their attitudes;–hear their supplicating addresses!–alas!–you cannot refuse.–Humanity must comply–in which hope I beg permission to subscribe myself,
Reverend, Sir, &c.
The man who wrote this now famous letter was Ignatius Sancho, a black African, born on a slave ship around 1729. He was transported to a slave colony in the Spanish territory of New Granada in South America, where his mother died and his father committed suicide rather than continue as a slave. Two-year-old Sancho was taken to England, where he entered the house of three sisters living in Greenwich. He was treated with unkindness, but he came to the attention of John, 2nd Duke of Montagu, who was impressed by the young boy’s intelligence and encouraged him to read. When he reached manhood, Sancho ran away from the Greenwich house and asked for the protection of the Montagus. He was taken on as a butler to Mary, Duchess of Montagu and continued in service with the family until 1773, when ill-health – chiefly gout – led him to retire and to open a grocery shop in Mayfair, London. He had married a West Indian woman the decade previously, Ann Osborne, and they had six children. His posthumously-published letters (1782) brought him fame and many readers.
It was while he was still in service that Sancho wrote to Sterne. On 27 July 1766 Sterne replied, a response both sympathetic and sharply analytical:
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. For my own part, I never look Westward (when I am in a pensive mood at least) but I think of the burdens which our brothers and sisters are there carrying — & could I ease their shoulders from one ounce of ’em, I declare I would set out this hour upon a pilgrimage to Mecca for their sakes — which by the by, Sancho, exceeds your walk of ten miles, in about the same proportion, that a visit of humanity should one of mere form — however if you meant my Uncle Toby, more — he is your debtor.
If I can weave the tale I have wrote into the work I’m about — ’tis at the service of the afflicted — and a much greater matter; for in serious truth, it casts a sad shade upon the world, that so great a part of it, are and have been so long bound in chains of darkness & in chains of misery; and I cannot but both respect & felicitate you, that by so much laudable diligence you have broke the one — & that by falling into the hands of so good and merciful a family, Providence has rescued you from the other.
And so, good hearted Sancho! adieu! & believe me, I will not forget your letter.
I have always treasured this exchange of letters (which was followed up by further friendly correspondence, and the two men eventually met). There is an instant sympathetic bond between the two, in style and sentiment. Sancho’s impassioned wish to walk ten miles in the dog-days (the hottest days of summer) to shake the hand of Sterne’s character Corporal Trim was no light wish for a man as corpulent as Sancho, and it expresses most eloquently the deep affection many felt for the leading figures in Sterne’s novel. Then there is Sterne’s reply, evidence that the great man had great feelings, and thought beyond the petty constraints of the times in which he found himself.
Sterne’s sympathy towards the plight of black Africans in slavery was unusual enough for the time, while his assertion that, logically speaking, there were no differences existing between the races that should see any human treated differently to another was radical, and influential. The passage on the “poor friendless negro-girl” that emerged in Chapter 6 of Volume IX of Tristram Shandy was slight enough, but his letter was written for publication, and when published its sentiments had a strong effect upon the sympathies of those tending towards the arguments of the growing abolition movement.
Sterne was a radical, but so was Sancho in his way. He was the first Black British bourgeois. He ran a business selling groceries to London’s finer set. As a male householder of financial independence he eligible to vote in a general election, becoming the first black Briton, so far as is known, to do so. He composed music, wrote plays and was valued by cognoscenti for his understanding of the arts. He was painted by Thomas Gainsborough, looking the very picture of a man of substance. He was a hearty British patriot. He exuded the gentle manners that the age cherished, and had a wide circle of friends, both white and black. Above all he wrote letters, a substantial number of which survive, and reveal him to be someone apparently on comfortable terms with middle-class white society, sharing concerns and confidences about commerce, relationships, the arts, religion and family.
Of course Sancho would have encountered prejudice both oblique and direct every day of his life in Britain, but his writings give only occasional indication of it. In one letter he writes of a family trip: “we went by water – had a couch home – were gazed at etc. etc. but not much abused”. However, he was not so assimilated that he did not speak out with passion about the iniquities of slavery, of which the letter to Sterne is but one example, and could employ sharp satire to analyse the roots of racism. He was an honest and clear-thinking man.
It was through discovering Sancho, backs in the early 1980s, that led me to find what I could about other black Britons and black writers of the eighteenth century. None of my English Literature reference books mentioned such names, and it was not easy to find much information on them (we are much better off now after much excellent research into the history of black Britons in recent years). I discovered James Grooniosaw, subject of the first autobiography of an African in Britain (in 1772); Olaudah Equiano, sharply intelligent anti-slavery activist and author of an exceptional autobiography; the abolitionist Ottobah Cugoano; and the African-American poet Phyllis Wheatley, who lived for a time in London and whose poems were published there. Sancho admired her poetry and wrote acutely of the condescension with which she was treated (such was the amazement that some felt that a black woman should be able to write at all):
Phyllis’s poems do credit to nature–and put art–merely as art–to the blush.–It reflects nothing either to the glory or generosity of her master–if she is still his slave–except he glories in the low vanity of having in his wanton power a mind animated by Heaven–a genius superior to himself–the list of splendid–titled–learned names, in confirmation of her being the real authoress.–alas! shews how very poor the acquisition of wealth and knowledge are–without generosity–feeling–and humanity.–These good great folks–all know–and perhaps admired–nay, praised Genius in bondage–and then, like the Priests and the Levites in sacred writ, passed by–not one good Samaritan amongst them.
Then there is the heartening story of Francis Barber, the Jamaican slave who became Samuel Johnson’s servant and ended up his heir (and now the subject of a new biography, The Fortunes of Francis Barber, by Michael Bundock). Recently we have had a film, Belle, based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, born a slave but brought up a freewoman in the English aristocracy.
These were lives that told you that those who had taught you what comprised British history and the British literary tradition were lying. All those received ideas, those unthinkingly accepted hierarchies, the smug assumptions – reject them all! Look at things with honest eyes. That was, in a way, the message of Tristram Shandy, a book which in deconstructing the novel tore apart the absurdities of cultural habit. That disordering of convention, along with the fashionable display of sensibility, made Sterne’s novel play its part in the societal changes which led to the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire in 1807 (the abolition of slavery itself to a while longer). It became the only reasonable, logical thing to do.
Sancho was born an African slave and died a free Englishman. I like him because of what he tells us about a different history of Britain, but chiefly because of the happy character that comes across in his letters. They are not great works of literature – they are better in small doses than read en masse – but they are a celebration of a well-earned ordinariness. Above all I love the sentiments in his letter to Sterne (and what that letter prompted in reply), and I love the thought of Sancho wheezing and sweating on a hot summer’s day yet determinedly walking those ten miles to shake hands with Corporal Trim. I’d walked those those ten miles in the dog-days too, to shake hands with Sancho.
Postscript: (26 September 2015)
What a coincidence. Having written this post, I was told that the British actor Paterson Joseph was about to start a one-man play, written by himself, on the life of Ignatius Sancho, Sancho: An Act of Remembrance. Happily I was able to see it at the Oxford Playhouse. It is a marvellous play, ingeniously constructed and winningly performed. Joseph starts things by appearing as himself. He talks about his dramatic training, and how a black actor as himself was seemingly barred from any kind of costume drama (he gives a delicious rendition of such a part, showing how suited he would be to costume drama roles). Then he tells how he started investigating British black lives of the eighteenth century, and how he happened upon the life of Sancho. And so he slips into character, with Sancho first telling us of his life while posing for Gainsborough in 1768, and then in the latter half, older, infirm, running his grocery store, preparing to vote for the abolitionist Charles James Fox in a parliamentary election.
It is an exuberant production, sometimes expecting that its audience pick up on some specialised references (how many have read Don Quixote nowadays?) but generally popular in tone, inviting its audience in the friendliest, most Sancho-like way, to rethink their history. The character we see is half-Sancho, half-Joseph, and the fine balance between the two is what makes the production so successful. The play ran for a few nights in Oxford and Birmingham, and will next tour four America cities over October and December. It deserves to be seen much more widely, and I very much hope that Joseph can find some London bookings. I’ll be there again if he does.
More information at www.sanchotheplay.com.
- The letter of Ignatius Sancho are available online on the site Documenting the American South – part one and part two
- Brycchan Carey’s Ignatius Sancho: Man of Letters is a very useful reference site, with biography, selections from the letters, details of his social circle, resources and links
- Listen to the Afro-American Chamber Music Society Orchestra play Sancho’s light but charming minuets on its YouTube channel. Other sound sample of Sancho’s music can be found on The Music of Ignatius Sancho site
- Adam Hochschild’s Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery is an exceptional history and a compelling account of black lives in the eighteenth century, in and out of slavery
- Sukhdev Sandhu’s London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City has a full and very good account of Sancho’s life and writings
- Also recommended is James Walvin’s An African’s Life, a biography of Olaudah Equiano with much information on his black contemporaries