Preface to Sancho: An Act of Remembrance

Preface to Sancho: An Act of Remembrance

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.

In the late 1970s my generation of young, black peers was growing up with the notion that we were the first manifestation of UK-born, black youth that had ever been seen on these islands. The majority of our parents, most of whom had arrived in the UK from Africa and the Caribbean islands – the famous ‘Windrush’ Generation – in the 50s and 60s, offered us no alternative narrative; neither did our school history lessons. Then came the American television show Roots – Alex Haley’s moving dramatization of his ancestor Kunta Kinte’s journey from Africa to America via the slave trade. It stunned us all. Suddenly, for us young, black Britons, the veil of history had been lifted. But – I ask myself now – whose history?

The African-American story is one most of us are now familiar with. Young, black Britons’ identification with the movers and shapers of that history, from Frederick Douglass via Martin Luther King to Barack Obama, has been well documented. Much of the music created by black British youth has clearly imbibed all the influences of African-American culture; we think of jazz and later hip-hop and R&B. Our ways of dressing, and even idiosyncratic modes of speech, have been adopted and assimilated from that vibrant and powerful African-American culture.

My slight worry with this phenomenon has always been one of personal-national identity. We may want to absorb the attractive, potent history of another, but in the end, we may find that we can only really stand firm on the foundations of our own, distinctive story. But when then, is the Afro-British story? And how did I come to tackle that story from the perspective of Charles Ignatius Sancho?

My interest in Sancho began on opening a page of a book entitled Black England by Gretchen Gerzina. I had been searching for a black, British history that would lend itself to a screenplay. A screenplay that would reflect an anterior history to the ‘1948 Windrush’ story that had been available to the wider public up until then.

In Gerzina’s book I read many a curious account. There was a story from ancient Britain about the black soldier reported to have been on Hadrian’s Wall screaming defiance at the Pict and Caledonian besiegers. There were ribald tales of Julius Soubise, young, black Casanova of the 18th century. The complaint of Queen Elizabeth the First that there were too many black on London’s 17th-century streets, and so a boat was chartered to take them all to Spain, and slavery… No one turned up.

However, it was on turning over a page and reading the domestic, personal and – at times – downright comic tale of Charles Ignatius Sancho that I knew I’d found my subject. He struck me as a truly British model of survival without overt heroism, and indefatigability without bitterness. An Afro-Brit forerunner some 220 years before the HMT Empire Windrush set sail for Britain from Montego Bay, Jamaica, with its 249 passengers… and one stowaway.

The only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho

The only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho

Ignatius Sancho’s letters are renowned for their observations of 18th-century culture and politics, but also for their domestic intimacy. In this letter, Sancho shows love and admiration for his wife, Anne, and gives a poignant description of Anne staying up for nearly ‘thirty nights’ as their five-year-old daughter Kitty is dying.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

My real starting point was, of course, seeing his portrait for the first time. I found that though his letters tell us, albeit guardedly, much about his character, for me his portrait revealed almost all. His poise, humour, curiosity and deep intelligence shine through. His self-awareness is evident, too, and one feels he was not cowed by his knowledge of the ‘place’ he was meant to occupy in 18th-century British society.

Portrait of Ignatius Sancho by Thomas Gainsborough, 1768

Portrait of Ignatius Sancho by Thomas Gainsborough, 1768

The only known portrait of Ignatius Sancho, painted by Thomas Gainsborough in 1768, when he was employed as a valet by George Brudenell, the Duke of Montagu.

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Usage terms Thomas Gainsborough Ignatius Sancho, 1768 Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 62.2 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: © NGC Thomas Gainsborough Ignatius Sancho, 1768 Huile sur toile, 73.7 x 62.2 cm, Musée des beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. Photo: © MBAC

My understanding of Black Britain was deepened by my discoveries about the man baptized in 1729 by the Bishop of Cartagena, Columbia: Charles Ignatius. Sancho’s life was no Roots, nor was it a British version of 12 Years a Slave. His journey was odder, more quirkily eccentric and subtle than the American models of slave life I’d been used to seeing and reading about. Sancho was a victim of the British gentry’s love of exotica. He was black, smart, humorous; he appealed to those who knew that Africans were not merely the ‘beasts of burden’ the slave traders portrayed them as. He was an entertainer in a time of supreme entertainers; his best friends were the satirical shaggy-dog tale author, Laurence Sterne; and the greatest actor of the 18th century, David Garrick.

The only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho

The only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho

Sancho’s letters are warm, witty and often stylistically playful. In this letter, he quotes Shakespeare but then laughs at himself for trying to flaunt his ‘erudition, and strut like the fabled bird in his borrow’ d plumage’.

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Minuets, Cotillons & Country Dances by Ignatius Sancho

Minuets, Cotillons and Country Dances by Ignatius Sancho

Before he became famous as a letter writer, Ignatius Sancho was a composer and aspiring actor, as well as a shopkeeper. Sancho wrote four books of songs and lively dance music, including this collection of Minuets, Cotillons & Country Dances.

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A pleasant shock of enlightenment was reading about the ‘Black Frolics’ and dances organised by the countless black servants, freemen and sailors all over London’s parks. A very different picture of pre-20th century Britain to the one I grew up with in the 1970s.

What makes Charles Ignatius Sancho a forerunner for the black British experience is his very un-American take on life as a black man among whites, and his unique place in British society. A less angry voice crying out against slavery than, say, Frederick Douglass, Sancho epitomises the very British love of argument and rhetoric, mixed with large doses of wicked humour. Together with his ability to love life and drink its cup to the dregs, he has an historian’s eye on the ‘weather’ of the politics of ethnicity. He noted when it was time to challenge and time to play music; he refused to be told to sit down and be quiet and chose instead to write, sing, dance and, indeed, act. In his widely-read letters, Sancho’s satirical and biting take on the social mores of his age, its political hypocrisy and downright cruelty, set his writings apart from the slave-narrative form adopted by his African-American counterparts.

First edition of the Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African, 1782

First edition of the Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African, 1782

On 21 July 1766, Ignatius Sancho wrote to the novelist Laurence Sterne, imploring Sterne to give more ‘attention to slavery’, suggesting that the ‘subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many’.

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The only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho

The only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho

In this original letter, Sancho condemns English politicans and refers to his African heritage, writing, ‘I am Sir an Affrican – with two ffs – if you please – & proud am I to be of a country that knows no politicians – nor lawyers – no – nor Thieves’.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Theirs detailed the harsh realities of life in the American slave economy; the brutal treatment and back-breaking toil under the overseer’s lash; the families and parents often systematically separated one from another, for economic and destabilising purposes. Sancho’s take was one of observer and commentator on all aspects of 18th-century British life, including its politics, literature, art and philosophy. He participated as an ‘equal’ when he should have been dismissed as a ‘novelty’. A role he refused to take on for much of his life.

Ignatius Sancho's letter to The General Advertiser asking the nobility to give up their useless family silverware

Ignatius Sancho's letter to The General Advertiser

This letter from 1778, signed ‘Africanus’, is one of the few Ignatius Sancho wrote for publication. Here, he comments on the economy, war, the nobility and national responsibility, arguing that Britain’s wealthy nobles should sacrifice their silverware to help pay off the national debt and finance the imminent war with France.

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And this is the nub of the matter; for however much you try and make the African-American history a facsimile of the Afro-British journey, you run into the problem of detail. Sancho may not have even been formerly a slave; his owner/guardian sent him to live in relative luxury in Greenwich rather than subject him to the vicissitudes of a life on a South American plantation; his assimilation into ‘polite’ society was so deep that his portrait was painted by the foremost portraitist in English history. Thomas Gainsborough’s depiction of Sancho, not as a slave, nor even servant, but in the typical pose of Gentleman, is almost shocking in its dignity and warmth.

Charles Ignatius is quite simply a perfect example, and by no means the only one in British history, of the strange, uncomfortable relationship that the UK has always had with its colonies and colonial peoples. On the one hand exploitation was rife and unbridled, and on the other, the natural and common humanity of the British would not allow them to fully embrace the horrors of the American model of slavery, at least on British soil. Caribbean slavery as perpetrated by the British was just as inhumane as any American version; in some cases, much more extreme in its horrors. And so, Sancho’s life was filled with the joy and pain of being at once free and simultaneously caged within his race and place in 18th-century society.

First edition of the Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African, 1782

First edition of the Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African, 1782

On 27 August 1777, Sancho describes a trip with his children 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, revealing the prejudice and challenges they faced as black Britons in 18th-century London.

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One of the most heartening details uncovered in my studies was the natural solidarity between the white working class and their African brothers and sisters; the former often rescuing and hiding slaves who had run away from cruel masters. A wonderful picture: struggling brother aiding struggling brother. A historical fact the right-wing press – lovers of division – seem to have cynically forgotten.

Through these years of research my ideas of British life and black British contributions to it have been revolutionised. What I thought about multi-ethnic Britain pre-Windrush and what I now know has, for me, changed forever the meaning of the words ‘Black British’. I now write them confidently, but with awareness of their resonance on every form that begs the question: Who Do You Think You Are? My humble hope is that this play will contribute a little to an understanding of our shared British history. Whoever we are.

*

A striking coda to add is the way my play has been transformed by its tour to America. A play that I considered to be a very British take on the right and determination to vote became very much a universal issue on the road. I write this from Harlem, New York, on the second leg of that American tour. We began two years ago at the Kennedy Center (sic) in Washington. When the post-show question-and-answer session was halfway through, three elderly African-American ladies stood and declared, ‘Son, this struggle to find the right papers to vote is happening to us today. You have got to spread this word: voting is our right as human beings.’ And so, in a kind of full-circle of my initial paragraph, African-American history has linked with Afro-British history. And, thanks in no small part to Charles Ignatius, the African Diaspora just got a little closer together.

Voting, in any context, is our inalienable right. If Sancho could do this in a time of widespread African enslavement and disenfranchisement, then all the more reason that we should not allow ourselves to believe the lie that our vote, black and white, does not count.

Record of Ignatius Sancho's vote in the general election, October 1774

Record of Ignatius Sancho's vote in the Westminster election, October 1774

Ignatius Sancho is the first known person of African descent to vote in a British general election. This public record of the October 1774 vote lists Sancho as a tea dealer in St Margaret’s and St John’s parish in Westminster, London, alongside over 7000 other men.

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Preface to Sancho: An Act of Remembrance was first published in 2011, and published with revisions in 2018. It was republished on Discovering Literature on 21 June 2018 with kind permission from Paterson Joseph. Do not reproduce without permission. © Paterson Jospeh

  • Paterson Joseph
  • Paterson Joseph is a British writer and performer. Paterson has worked regularly at the National Theatre in London (Whale, Saint Joan, Royal Hunt for the Sun, The Emperor Jones, Elmina's Kitchen); the Royal Shakespeare Company (Julius Caesar, Don Juan, Troilus and Cressida, King Lear, Love's Labours Lost) as well as at the Royal Exchange, Gate, Almedia, and Young Vic theatre. Paterson also frequently appears on television, including: Timeless (NBC); You, Me and the Apocalypse (NBC & Sky); The Leftovers (HBO) and Danny Boyle's Babylon. Paterson is a season regular in Timeless and Peep Show, he has also appeared in Doctor Who, Hustle, No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency and Rellik (all BBC/HBO). Sancho marks Paterson's first play as a writer.