Sancho, Ignatius

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Sancho, Ignatius (1729-80): Afro-British Writer.

Ignatius Sancho was born a slave but attained the rare distinctions of authoring a collection of letters, two plays, and some musical compositions. Well connected in high social circles, his critical opinions were sought and respected by artists and socialites. He numbered among his friends the Duchess of Queensberry, the actor David Garrick, and the artists John Hamilton Mortimer and Joseph Nollekens.

Orphaned in Cartagena (South America) by the untimely deaths of his parents, he was placed in the care of "three maiden" sisters living at Greenwich, England. These women's narrow prejudices threatened to keep him ignorant and illiterate. However, his winning sociability and irrepressible spirit caught the notice of John, the second Duke of Montagu who provided him with books. After the duke's death in 1749, he was first rejected but later accepted into the duchess' household as a butler. At her death two years later, she left him an annuity of 30 pounds and a year's salary.

After some years at loose ends, Sancho returned to a new appointment with another Montagu. He devoted himself to books, music and art, met the novelist Laurence Sterne and sat for the painter Gainsborough, Thomas. In 1758 he married Anne, the woman who was to bear him five daughters and two sons. When gout and obesity forced him to retire from the Montagu service, they found a house for him at 19 Charles St, Westminster, where Sancho kept a shop, raised his family, received visits and corresponded with persons of all social ranks.

The bulk of his published letters were written during the period 1774-80 and were destined to win him his reputation as a considerable epistolary figure. The Letters reveal a mind conscious and well informed. Though a keen observer of his society and an intelligent interpreter of contemporary events, Sancho did not participate in direct political action against slavery. He chose instead to use the tools of irony to condemn this evil and the fashionable appeals of benevolence to urge a liberal tolerance for all.

Further Reading:

Paul Edwards and Polly Rewt, eds. The Letters of Ignatius Sancho, 1994

Keith A. Sandiford