Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729 – 14 December 1780), a Black slave, lived in Britain at the height of the debate on antislavery and he left a testimonial, letters mainly, of the struggle to end an ignominy. Sancho was a man of colour, but antislavery motivated many members of the White race to gather and attempt to eradicate the subjugation of coloured human beings. Colour is skin-deep. Many abolitionists were Quakers, which is the case with French-American Anthony Benezet (Antoine Bénézet) and his followers. But the person who helped Sancho, John Montagu, the 2nd Duke of Montagu KG, KB, PC (1690 – 5 July 1749), was a Freemason.
Because it deals with inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality (1754) could be a key document on the topic of abolitionism, except that Rousseau is one of the thinkers who introduced the idea of the Noble Savage.[i] Therefore, having mentioned the Discourse on Inequality, we are crossing the English Channel from France to England, where the antislavery debate was at a climax and would attract American abolitionists, one of whom was the above-mentioned French-born American Anthony Benezet (31 January 1713 – 3 May 1784). (See The Abolition of Slavery.)
Ignatius Sancho and Laurence Sterne
Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729 – 14 December 1780) was a Black slave who wrote a letter to Laurence Sterne (24 November 1713 – 18 March 1768) which, upon publication and concurrent publication of the Reverend Sterne’s answer to Sancho’s letter, made Ignatius Sancho famous. Laurence Sterne, an Anglo-Irish novelist and Anglican clergyman, is best known as the author of Tristram Shandy, or A Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1761-1767) and A Sentimental Journey to France and Italy (1668).[ii]
Because the publication of Tristram Shandy had been a huge success, our Black British abolitionist Ignatius Sancho wrote to Sterne urging the writer to put his eloquence into the service of abolitionism:
That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many – but if only one – Gracious God! – what a feast to a benevolent heart!
Laurence Sterne received Sancho’s letter in July 1766, two years before his death. There was little the Reverend Sterne could do at this point in his life. In 1765, Sterne had travelled, in vain, to France and Italy, in search of a climate that would relieve the symptoms of tuberculosis. He died in 1768, two years after receiving and answering Sancho’s letter, but his response to Sancho has survived the test of time and constitutes a witty and powerful statement against slavery. It ridiculed slavery.
“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.”
Louis de Carmontelle (15 August 1717 – 26 December 1806)
Birth on a slave ship
Black British abolitionist Ignatius Sancho (c. 1729 – 14 December 1780) was born on the slave ship taking his parents to New Granada, a Spanish colony. Sancho’s mother died when Sancho was in infancy. After Sancho’s mother’s death, his father committed suicide rather than live as a slave. Slaves belonged to their owners. Some owners were good, but too many were brutes. The owner of the slave hanging from his ribs, portrayed by William Blake (above), was a brute and nothing could stop him. He owned the man he was killing mercilessly. Owning a human being can lead to horrific abuse.
The 1730s and 40s
At the age of two, Sancho was sent to England where he worked for three maiden sisters in Greenwich until the 1750s. However, John Montagu, the 2nd Duke of Montagu KG, KB, PC (1690 – 5 July 1749), a Freemason, took an interest in Ignatius, who was a very intelligent child whose personality and manners were truly endearing. John Montagu therefore funded what little formal education Sancho received. The Montagus always helped Sancho.
The 50s and 60s
During the 50s, Sancho spent two happy years working as butler to Mary Montagu (née Churchill). During those two years, he studied music. He would later publish a theory of music and compose. In the 60s, he married a West Indian woman, Ann Osborne. The couple had six children. During that same period he also became a valet to George Montagu, 1st Duke of Montagu, the son-in-law of his former patron and a man of refinement. When he started to work for George Montagu, 1st Duke of Montagu, Thomas Gainsborough made a portrait of Sancho.
The Late 1760s and the 70s
In 1774, with help from the Duke of Montagu and using the remains of an inheritance and the annuity he was receiving from Mary Montagu, Sancho, then suffering from ill-health and gout, opened a green grocery shop offering merchandise such as tobacco, sugar and tea, at 19 Charles Street in London’s Mayfair, Westminster.
It is during this period of his life that Sancho published his Theory of Music and songs. It is also during this period that he became a voter. “As a financially independent male householder living in Westminster, Sancho qualified to vote in the parliamentary elections of 1774 and 1780.” (See Ignatius Sancho, Wikipedia.) During the 1700s, Sancho also contributed letters in newspapers, under his own name and under the pseudonym “Africanus.”
Ignatius Sancho: A Summary
- a Black slave born on a slave ship;
- a composer: he published a Theory of Music and composed songs;
- a playwright: he wrote two plays and was an acquaintance of famed actor David Garrick;
- an actor;
- a writer, letters (to Sterne, and to newspapers), plays and a two-volume collection of letters published after his death;
- a businessman;
- the first black person of African origin known to have voted in Britain;
- the first African to be given an obituary in the British press (see above).
According to Wikipedia, Sancho “was unusually blunt in [h]is 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.” (See Ignatius Sancho, Wikipedia.) John Wingrave, Jack’s father and Sancho’s friend, was a London bookbinder and bookseller.
“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.” (See Sancho’s View on Empire and Slavery.)
The above letter may be “blunt,” but could it be otherwise? Ignatius Sancho was fighting an evil, perhaps the very worst evil human beings have inflicted on themselves, an evil motivated by greed.
- Circular 3591 and Why Dec 12th Is Special in the Fight Against Slavery (kennethdprice.com)
- The Abolition of Slavery (michelinewalker.com)
- The Noble Savage: Lahontan’s Adario (michelinewalker.com)
- Sancho’s letters can be read online at Documenting the American South (scroll down)
- Sancho’s View on Empire and Slavery (letter to Jack Wingrave)
- Tristram Shandy is a Project Gutenberg publication [EBook #1079]
- One Hundred Greatest Black Britons
[i] “noble savage”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
© Micheline Walker
14 December 2013
Ignatius Sancho died today, 14 December, in 1780.