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)
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 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.