This book of Ignatius Sancho’s wise, warm and witty letters was the first published correspondence by a writer of African descent. It was printed in 1782, two years after Sancho’s death, and it became a powerful tool in the campaign to end slavery.
According to Joseph Jekyll’s 1782 biography, Sancho was born on a slave ship around 1729, and brought to England as an orphan. He managed to secure the help of the noble Montagu family, and, after working in their household, he became a shopkeeper and accomplished writer and composer.
These letters reveal Sancho’s friendships with people from all social circles, from noblewomen to artists, actors, authors and servants. He shares family gossip and momentous political news; he critiques books, plays and artworks; he mentors other servants and aspiring writers; he condemns the slave trade and defends the enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley; and he charms prominent people with his self-effacing humour and Christian stoicism.
Proof of racial equality
The letters were edited by Sancho’s correspondent Frances Crewe, with the aim of ‘shewing that an untutored African may possess abilities equal to an European’. Crewe used the profits to support Sancho’s ‘worthy family’, selling the book by subscription to over 1,200 people. Sancho’s widow Anne received more than £500, including the booksellers’ fee for the second edition.
The preface and frontispiece
Crewe insists that none of the letters were written ‘with a view to publication’. She collected and edited them, at times hiding people’s names, cutting out small sections and also misdating some letters. Her book includes Joseph Jekyll’s biography of Sancho, and Francesco Bartolozzi’s engraved portrait based on Thomas Gainsborough’s painting.
Letter XV: Sancho’s shop and growing family
On 1 November 1773, Sancho writes to ‘Mrs H’ expressing his excitement about opening his grocery shop on Charles Street in Westminster. Having only ‘scanty’ money, he plans to start small, selling ‘tea, snuff, and sugar’. He also announces that ‘Mrs Sancho is in the straw’ – she has just had a baby, their ‘fifth wench’ named Kitty. Despite his financial worries, he insists ‘the more children, the more blessings’.
Letter XXXV: Asking Laurence Sterne to write about slavery
On 21 July 1766, Sancho approaches Laurence Sterne, one of his favourite authors, having been touched by Sterne’s sermon denouncing slavery. Describing himself as ‘one of those people whom the vulgar … call “Negurs”’, Sancho outlines his life story. He says his ‘chief pleasure has been books’, and declares he ‘would walk ten miles … to shake hands’ with Sterne’s much-loved character Uncle Toby from Tristram Shandy. Sancho then implores Sterne to give more ‘attention to slavery’, suggesting that the ‘subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many’. Sterne replied on 27 July, and the two struck up a friendship. When their correspondence was published in a posthumous edition of Sterne’s Letters (1775), it made Sancho famous.
Letter XLVIII: Being ‘gazed at’ in Vauxhall Gardens
Sancho often conveys his relish of cultural life in London, but some letters betray the prejudice and challenges faced by his family. On 27 August 1777, he writes to Roger Rush, a clerk at Newmarket racecourse, thanking him for treating his family to a concert in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens: ‘last night – three great girls – a boy – and a fat old fellow – were as happy and pleas’d’ as could be. But travelling home, they ‘were gazed at – followed, &c. &c. ‒ but not much abused’ this time.
Letter XLIX: Playing with words and typography
Often, Sancho’s writing is inspired by Sterne’s playful style – with dashes, digressions, neologisms and self-reflexive remarks about writing. Here, he admits to John Meheux that gout makes it ‘painful to write much … You see I write, like a lady, from one corner of the paper to the other’. But then an ink blot distracts him: ‘confound the ink! what a blot!’. The ink is depicted in print by a small black blob, a little like one of the squiggles or black pages in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.
Volume 2, Letter LXVII: Report on the Gordon Riots
Between 6 and 9 June 1780, Sancho wrote a series of letters about the violent anti-Catholic Gordon Riots. This was the worst civil disorder in English history, prompted by the Papists Act of 1778 which lifted some discriminatory laws against Catholics. From his shop, Sancho witnessed ‘the cruel and ridiculous confusion’ of the crowd, and he comments ironically on the ‘worse than Negro barbarity of the populace; – the burnings and devastations of each night’.
 Sancho refers to Sterne’s ‘Sermon X’ on ‘Job’s Account of the Shortness and Troubles of Life, Considered’ in The Sermons of Mr. Yorick (London, 1760), Vol. 2, pp. 98‒99.