Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729 – 14 December 1780) is a noteworthy figure in British history, known for his numerous accomplishments as a composer, writer, and passionate advocate for the abolition of slavery. Sancho’s journey from being born on a slave ship to becoming a prominent British citizen who fought against the inhumane institution of slavery is a testament to his resilience, intellect, and determination.
Early life and struggles
Ignatius Sancho was born on a slave ship while it was traversing the Atlantic Ocean in the infamous Middle Passage. Soon after they arrived in the Spanish colony of New Granada, which comprised parts of present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela, Sancho’s mother tragically passed away. His father, unable to bear the burden of slavery, took his own life.
As an orphan aged just two years, Sancho was taken to England by his owner and given to three unmarried sisters residing in Greenwich. They named him Sancho, believing he resembled Don Quixote’s squire, Sancho Panza. They did not believe in the education of slaves; nonetheless, Ignatius taught himself to read and write.
During this time, the young Sancho met John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu, who took an interest in his education and encouraged his passion for literature. Montagu, who lived nearby in Blackheath, liked Ignatius’ acquisitive nature, bought him books, and tried to persuade the sisters to educate him, but they would not.
Pursuing education and escaping servitude
Despite his informal education, Sancho found his lack of freedom with the Greenwich sisters unbearable. In 1749, he escaped to Montagu House in Blackheath, where he worked as a butler for the Duchess of Montagu until she died in 1751. While at Montagu House, Sancho immersed himself in music, poetry, reading, and writing.
Following the Duchess’s death, Sancho received an annuity and a year’s salary, granting him some financial independence. In 1758, he married Anne Osborne, a West Indian woman, and they had seven children. Sancho continued to work, becoming a valet to the Montagu family.
Gaining recognition as a composer and writer
Sancho’s talents in music and writing began to garner attention in the late 1760s. British artist Thomas Gainsborough painted a portrait of Sancho, which expertly captured his dignity and refinement. Around the same time, Sancho started writing to various prominent figures, including novelist Laurence Sterne, urging them to use their influence to fight against the slave trade.
Sancho’s correspondence with Sterne became an important part of 18th-century abolitionist literature, and Sancho gained recognition as a man of letters. Despite being in England since the age of two, Sancho felt like a mere lodger in the country, experiencing discrimination and insults from others.
Establishing a business and advocating for abolition
In 1774, with assistance from the Montagu family, Sancho opened a grocery shop in Mayfair, Westminster. The shop sold goods such as tobacco, sugar, and tea, which were primarily produced by slaves in the West Indies. As a shopkeeper, Sancho had more time to socialise, correspond with friends, and share his love for literature.
Sancho became increasingly involved in the British abolitionist movement, using his status as an independent male property owner to vote for Members of Parliament who supported the cause. He became the first known person of African descent to vote in Britain, exercising this right in the general elections of 1774 and 1780.
Ignatius Sancho passed away on 14 December 1780 due to complications from gout, and he was buried in the churchyard of St Margaret’s, Westminster. Sancho was the first person of African descent to be given an obituary in the British press.
The letters of the late Ignatius Sancho
Two years after his death, 160 of Sancho’s letters were published in a collection titled “The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African”. The letters provide insight into Sancho’s thoughts on politics, literature, and the state of 18th-century Britain. They also include eyewitness accounts of the Gordon Riots in June 1780, a violent event that took place outside Sancho’s shop.
Frances Crewe, a correspondent of Sancho, organised the publication of the letters, which sold well and provided financial support to Sancho’s widow. The letters cemented Sancho’s reputation as a writer and an influential figure in the abolitionist movement.
Legacy of Ignatius Sancho
The life and accomplishments of Ignatius Sancho serve as an enduring testament to the power of resilience, intellect, and the human spirit. By overcoming the adversity of his early life, Sancho achieved personal success and made significant contributions to the fight against slavery.
His music, writings, and advocacy for abolition inspire and inform current discussions on race, equality, and human rights. Ignatius Sancho’s legacy reminds us of the importance of standing up against injustice and using our talents and resources to make a positive impact on the world.