Ignatius Sancho

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Ignatius Sancho

Ignatius Sancho was born in 1729 on a slave ship deporting Africans out of Africa to England; this marked the beginning of the life of a great man. His mother died as a result of inhumane conditions in New Granada; his father refused to live as a slave so he chose to die. Sancho was alone and was later shipped to England to become a slave for maiden sisters in Greenwich, from 1731 to 1749. Sancho caught the attention of John Montague, who was the 2nd Duke of Montague; John taught and encouraged Sancho to read, and also lent Sancho his own personal books to read from. By 1749 Sancho’s educational level was increasing, he was beginning to understand that he was being dehumanized and decided to escape from Greenwich and flee to live with the Montague’s. He became the butler of Mary Montagu until her death, but he spent his time learning music, poetry, reading and writing. In 1751 Mary Montagu died and Sancho was awarded 30 pounds, which was a year’s salary. Sancho met and married Ann Osborne and fathered six children with her. His reputation was growing, not as a slave but as a man of distinction; his reputation was growing because of his education and exposure to the royal lifestyles of the Montagu’s.

In 1766 Sancho wrote a letter to Laurence Sterne, he wanted Sterne to foyer for the abolition of the slave trade. Sterne received the letter and responded by writing Tristram Shandy, in his writing he brought light to the oppression of a black servant girl. Sterne’s writings were publicized throughout Britain and became an important piece of 18th century abolitionist literature. Sancho earned the title of “King of Letters” because of the letter he wrote to Sterne. In 1774 Sancho opened a grocery store; this allowed him to share his literature with many more people. The sharing of his literature actually attracted people to his grocery store. Sancho would later write and publish Theory of Music; he also would write and publish two plays. Sancho was listed as an independent male householder in Britain and this listing gave him the right to vote. In 1774 Sancho became the first person of African origin to vote in the history of Britain.  He continued to write his letters and he also began writing in newspapers using the alias “Africanus.”

Sancho’s Grocery store attracted many people, but one important person it attracted was Charles James Fox. Fox was a Statesman and abolitionist; in 1806 he oversaw a Foreign Slave Trade Bill prohibiting British subjects from contributing to the slave trade. This bill eliminated two-thirds of the slave trade passing through Britain. In December of 1780, Ignatius Sancho died of complications with gout; his literary genius however would live on. Sancho became the first person of African origin to be given an obituary in the British Press newspaper. Sancho gained notoriety for his writings of his eye-witness accounts of the Gordon Riots. In 1782 Frances Crewe and a friend arranged 160 of Sancho’s letters into a two volume book entitled, The Letters of the Great Ignatius Sancho, an African. The book sold well and Sancho’s widow was able to receive over 500 pounds in royalties.  Sancho’s son William Leach Osborne inherited his father’s shop and transformed it into a printing and book-selling business. Osborne printed the fifth edition of the Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho with Memoirs of His Life by Joseph Jekyll; in his father’s shop. In 2007 a plaque in the memory of Sancho was unveiled on the remaining wall of the Montague House in Greenwich Park. Sancho was the catalyst behind the heightened consciousness of the horrors of the slave trade through Britain. His outstanding writings caused people to pay attention to slavery and Sancho’s brilliant writing style. Mr. Ignatius Sancho, we stand on your shoulders.


J.A. Ward.

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