This month we’re celebrating Black History Month. As avid bookworms, it got us thinking: who was the first black person to have been published in Britain?
After some digging around, we discovered the inspiring story of Ignatius Sancho. Born into slavery, he not only became a writer but was also the first black person to vote in a British election and an influential figure in 18th century Britain.
As part of our Black History Month celebrations, we wanted to share his poignant story with you…
Born into slavery
Charles Ignatius Sancho was born around 1729 on a slave ship destined for the Spanish West Indies, – although in his own writings, Sancho would identify his place of birth as Africa. The slave ships crossing the Middle Passage were infamous for their terrible conditions. Lack of sanitation and suffocating conditions created a constant threat of disease, and slaves were at the mercy of brutality and abuse by the crew throughout a journey that would last over two months. One in five Africans on board these ships wouldn’t survive the journey. Many more would die from disease once ashore.
Shortly after arriving at their destination in the Spanish colony of New Grenada, Sancho’s mother succumbed to disease and died. His father, rather than live the rest of his life as a slave, took his own life soon after.
Left with the orphaned Sancho, his owner took him to England where he was given as a gift to the wealthy Legge sisters in Greenwich. Although there are few accounts, the sisters are said to have bullied him relentlessly. However, it was here that a family friend and regular visitor, the 2nd Duke of Montagu, noticed the young Sancho’s natural intellect and took an interest in his education and welfare. He would bring books from his household library to lend him and Sancho soon taught himself how to read and write. It was perhaps this small kindness that led Sancho to eventually run away from a life of slavery and persuade the Duke’s family to employ him.
Sancho would stay with the family at Montagu House for the next 20 years as a respected member of their household. They gave him the freedom to immerse himself in music, reading, writing, and poetry. It was here he met his wife and started a family – and where he began writing the letters he is remembered for today.
In short, write anything – everything – and above all, improve your mind with good reading…
A man of letters
Sancho developed a wide range of correspondents through his letters to newspapers and pamphlets. Here, he campaigned for the abolition of slavery and provided a fresh commentary and perspective on 18th-century culture. But it was his correspondence with famed Anglo-Irish writer Laurence Sterne that raised him to prominence. Sancho first wrote to Sterne around 1766, urging him to use his considerable influence to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade. Upon publishing, Ignatius Sancho’s letters vividly illustrated the trade’s inhumanity to a wide audience – most of whom had never read words written by a black person. These letters between Sancho and Sterne would become an integral part of 18th-century abolitionist literature.
A political pioneer
In 1774, with financial support from the Montagu family, Sancho purchased a grocery shop in Mayfair. Here, he enjoyed more time socialising, writing and composing music. His letters continued to appear in newspapers, often signed with the pseudonym ‘Africanus’, and he enjoyed close friendships with prominent figures such as artist Thomas Gainsborough, actor David Garrick, and abolitionist Charles James Fox.
…converse with men of sense, rather than with fools of fashion and riches…Ignatius Sancho
However, his new position as a property-owner gave him another opportunity. It was during this period that only land or property-owning men could vote in the United Kingdom – approximately only 3% of the population. At a time when the vote was severely restricted, Ignatius Sancho became the first black person to vote in a UK election in 1774 – a right he executed again in 1780.
Ignatius Sancho died in 1780. Although he was known within certain circles, it was not until two years after his death that his letters were widely available to be read.
It was in 1782 that Frances Crewe, a correspondence of Sancho’s, arranged for 160 of his letters to be published in a book entitled The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho. It proved an eye-opener to many, telling one of the earliest, first-hand accounts of the abhorrence of slavery, written in English.
Sancho’s son, William, took over the grocery shop – eventually turning it into a book-selling business and printing house which went on to produce the very book containing his father’s famous letters.
Sancho is buried in St Margaret’s Church in Greenwich, but there is no tombstone, inscription, or memorial to be found. Instead, his legacy as one of the earliest abolitionists lives on through the power of his words.
“…be humble to the rich–affable, open, and
good-natured to your equals–and
compassionately kind to the poor.”
…be humble to the rich-affable, open and good-natured to your equals – and compassionately kind to the poor.Ignatius Sancho
Did you know about Ignatius Sancho? Which other black historical figures have stories that need to be shared? Let us know in the comments below.