Ignatius Sancho used the medium of letters to record his thoughts on many of the major political, economic and cultural issues of late 18th-century Britain and its empire. In addition to this, his writings provide glimpses into both his professional life as a shopkeeper and private life as a family man.
Sancho's place of birth is uncertain – his contemporary biographer wrote that he was born on a slave ship, whereas he himself claimed to have been born in Africa – but the historical record confirms that, as a young boy, he was sold as a slave to British subjects, first in the West Indies and then in England. After running away and convincing the Montagu family to employ him, Sancho embarked on a remarkable career of social commentary, musical composition and entrepreneurship. He counted among his friends many of the London cultural elite, and over the course of his life cultivated a wide range of correspondents.
Writing on slavery
Sancho's first public recognition came by way of his exchange of letters with Laurence Sterne, in which Sancho encouraged the novelist to use his pen to combat slavery. Sancho wrote:
That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many – but if only of one – Gracious God! – what a feast to a benevolent heart!
Though Sterne died in 1768, the novelist had preserved copies of his correspondence with Sancho and these were included in a collection of Sterne’s letters posthumously published in 1775. Sancho would remain a sharp critic of the mercenary and morally destructive nature of British colonialism in general, and of slavery in particular. As he wrote in 1778 to Jack Wingrave, the son of London bookseller John Wingrave:
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.
Sancho stressed that Britons must cast aside their assumption that people who look and live differently from themselves are culturally inferior, writing that:
Make human nature thy study – wherever thou residest – whatever the religion – or the complexion – study their hearts.
Sancho’s far-flung network of correspondents brought other black writers to his attention, including the poet Phillis Wheatley, of whom he became an acute reader. In one letter, Sancho thanks a Quaker friend in Philadelphia for sending him a copy of Wheatley’s book:
Phyllis' poems do credit to nature – and put art – merely as art – to the blush. – It reflects nothing either to the glory or generosity of her master – if she is still his slave – except he glories in the low vanity of having in his wanton power a mind animated by Heaven – a genius superior to himself – the list of splendid – titled – learned names, in confirmation of her being the real authoress. – alas!
Sancho eventually left his employment in the Montagu family and opened a grocery store, an occupation which afforded him more spare time to write letters to friends and editorials for newspapers. Sancho's commentaries on slavery were circulated widely and drew prominent public figures into his orbit, such as Charles James Fox, for whom Sancho voted in the 1780 election. Fox would later go on to steer a parliamentary campaign to abolish the slave trade, resulting in the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807).
Observing the Gordon Riots
One of Sancho’s most vivid series of letters recounts the Gordon Riots of 1780. When Parliament passed the Papists Act of 1778, which walked back state provisions for toleration toward Catholics, an angry mob charged along Charles Street outside Sancho’s shopfront. Sancho recorded ‘the shouts of the mob, the horrid clashing of swords, and the clutter of a multitude in swiftest motion’. His account of the event provides a unique, first-hand perspective on popular politics and Church-state relations.
Publishing the Letters
Sancho remained an active correspondent until his death in 1780. Though several of Sancho’s letters had been published in Sterne’s correspondence and in newspapers, a collected edition of his letters was not proposed until after his death. Frances Crewe, a leading society hostess and literary patron, led the editorial work that culminated in The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, which appeared in 1782 and included 160 of his letters. It also included a frontispiece portrait engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi, based on the portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough. The two-volume collection, which included a short biography by lawyer and Royal Society Fellow Joseph Jekyll, sold beyond expectations and was reprinted four times before the end of the century. Most of the proceeds went to Sancho’s widow, Anne Osborne, and their children. The fifth edition of 1803 was printed and sold by Sancho’s son, William Leach Osborne Sancho, who had transformed his father’s grocery into a printing shop and bookstore.
Ignatius Sancho’s letters remain an important first-hand account of late 18th-century life, with all its political contradictions, cultural richness and social turmoil.