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Ignatius Sancho: African Man of Letters

Ignatius Sancho Portrait
Portrait of Ignatius Sancho by Gainsborough 1768

Ignatius Sancho was the first African prose writer whose work was published in England. Ignatius

A former slave and renowned shopkeeper, Ignatius Sancho came to England at the age of two, it was 1731. His Mother had died in the Spanish colony of New Granada, and his father had refused to remain a slave, and chose to take his own life.

An Orphaned Slave in London

Sancho’s first recollections were of growing up in Greenwich, London, where he was working as a child slave.

Sancho was working for three unmarried sisters, when he met John Montagu (The Duke of Montagu). The Duke came to know Sancho and became fond of him, encouraging his education.

The Duke of Montagu sent Sancho presents, in the form of books.  The aim was  to cultivate the mind of the knowledge hungry, Sancho.  Later in life, Sancho would go serve the Dukes Widow, at her home.

Sancho married in the 1760’s and had seven children. When his daughter, Elizabeth was born in 1766, Sancho went to work for George Brudenell, (Who inherited the title Montagu) as he was the Son in law of Sancho’s former Parton.

An African Man of Letters

Sancho continued his education and was well known in London circles. When the painter Thomas Gainsborough came to paint the Duchess of Montagu, he also painted Sancho (Portrait Above).

It was around this time that Sancho wrote to the famous writer, Laurence Sterne.  Writing on behalf of the enslaved Africans, Sancho emplored Sterne to use his way with words to appeal for a more just life for those in bondage.  Sterne wrote back, expressing similar sentiments.

London’s First Black Green Grocer & First Known Black Voter

in 1774, After his service as a Butler, Sancho retired to run his Grocers shop on Charles Street in Westminster.It was from here that Sancho wrote many of his famous letters.  His correspondents would also visit him.

His associates included the actor,  Garrick, The Montagu’s and the sculptor Nollekins.  Whilst his letters cover a wide range of topics, he is highly critical of what he sees as the corruption of ‘natives’. (see Letter to Jack Wingrave)

It was at Garrick’s suggestion that Sancho attempted acting the roles of Othello and Orinooko, however, he was thwarted by a speech impediment.

Amongst his achievements, Ignatius Sancho was almost certainly the model for a character ‘Shina Cambo’ in the 1790 novel ‘Memoirs and opinions of Mr Blenfield‘. This novel is perhaps the first instance in English Literature, where white men visit the home of a Black family as equals and when black people are shown as integrated into White English Society.

Sancho wrote and published a Theory of Music and two plays. As a financially independent male householder living in Westminster, Sancho qualified to vote in the parliamentary elections of 1774 and 1780; he was the first black person of African origin known to have voted in Britain. At this time, he also wrote letters and in newspapers, under his own name and under the pseudonym “Africanus”.

Sancho also enjoyed composing music.

Ignatius Sancho died in 1780, suffering the effects of  Gout. Two years after his death his Letters were published. They attracted over 1,200 subscribers,  the highest subscription of any author of his time for 70 years.

Further reading:

2 thoughts on “Ignatius Sancho: African Man of Letters

  • 4th August 2010 at 1:24 pm
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    I am hereby reaching out to you to point me to folks who maybe able to assist me in determining whether Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) is an ancestor of my great great grand father Bentick Sancho probably (1788-1884). Also who can determine whether the other persons surnamed Sancho as listed in Court records with the son of Ignatius Sancho are his relatives? Who do you recommend I immediately contact?

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