Ignatius Sancho wrote many of his witty, genial letters to ‘the ringing of the shop-door bell’ at 19 Charles Street in Westminster. He and his wife Anne kept a grocery store selling tobacco, snuff, sugar, rum, soap and other daily supplies, from 1774 until Sancho’s death in 1780. They bought the property with the help of George (Brudenell) Montagu, who had employed Sancho as his personal valet.
In a letter dated 1 November 1773, Sancho looks forward to the opening of his new shop: ‘I verily think the happiest part of my life is to come’. He feels he’ll ‘cut a respectable figure’ as a shopkeeper, especially with his ‘printed cards’ (Letter XV).
Sancho’s trade card
Sancho’s printed card advertises his ‘best Trinidado’, a special blend of tobacco originating in the West Indies. On one side, there is a Native American boy relaxing with a pipe and tankard, while an African boy – probably a slave – collects sugar cane or tobacco. On the other side, a Native American in a feathered headdress strikes a deal with a European trader at a shipping port. Both men stand on a shield decorated with the fleur-de-lis, a symbol of the French Crown.
According to Joseph Jekyll’s 1782 biography, Sancho was born on a slave ship sailing from Africa to the West Indies. He was brought to England when he was two, and given to three sisters in Greenwich; later on, he was taken in by the Montagu family who made him their butler and valet, before he left them to open the shop. Sancho wrote a number of letters vigorously opposing the slave trade, but this card raises troubling questions about his sale of products which relied on slave labour.
Sancho’s letters are filled with the bustle, gossip and chaos of life in a shop, surrounded by his large family. At times, however, he worries that ‘Trade is duller than I ever knew it ‒ and money scarcer’ (Letter XXXVII).
After his death, the shop passed to Sancho’s son William, who later converted it into a printing and publishing house. In 1803, William published the fifth edition of his father’s Letters.
 See Letter XLI (dated 9 February 1777) in Letters of the Late Ignatio Sancho, an African, ed. by Vincent Carretta (Peterborough, Ontario, 2015).
- Full title:
- Tobacco-paper for (Ignatius) Sancho's Best Trinidado with two boys beside a barrel; and 'The wish', tobacco-paper for (Ignatius) Sancho's Best Trinidado
- c. 1774–1780
- Advertisement / Ephemera / Illustration / Image
- © Trustees of the British Museum
- Usage terms
- Held by
- The British Museum
- Article by:
- Paterson Joseph
- Satire and humour, Politics and religion, Travel, colonialism and slavery
Paterson Joseph describes how his research into Black British history led him to write his first play, Sancho: An Act of Remembrance. In this one-man show, Paterson Joseph inhabits the life of Ignatius Sancho, the 18th-century composer, aspiring actor, letter-writer and anti-slavery campaigner, who became the first person of African descent to vote in a British general election.
- Article by:
- S I Martin
- Politics and religion, Travel, colonialism and slavery, Language and ideas
By 1780, there were at least 20,000 black people living in Britain. S I Martin describes how four writers, taken from Africa as children and sold into slavery, grew up to write works that challenged British ideas about race, called for African brotherhood and demanded the abolition of the slave trade.
- Article by:
- Brycchan Carey
- Travel, colonialism and slavery, Politics and religion
From the mid 18th century, Africans and people of African descent – many of them former slaves – began to write down their stories. Brycchan Carey describes these writings and assesses their role in the abolition of slavery.
Related collection items
Related teachers' notes
This teaching pack will introduce students to Ignatius Sancho in his own words through a selection of his letters and invite students to offer a variety of creative responses to Sancho’s life, work and unique voice.
PDF Download Available