Ignatius Sancho Essay - Critical Essays

Sancho, Ignatius


Ignatius Sancho 1729-1780

African-born English composer and letter writer.

Well known in London social and literary circles during his lifetime, Sancho achieved lasting fame with the posthumous publication of his Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African. The 158 letters collected in this volume cover a wide range of subjects—including literature, politics, and race—and offer Sancho's unique perspective as a former slave and one of the only middle-class Black men living in eighteenth-century London. Sancho's letters also reveal him to be a man of generosity, warmth, and humor who enjoyed the company of friends from many different stations in life. In his own day, Sancho was thought of as “the extraordinary Negro,” and to eighteenth-century British opponents of the slave trade he became a symbol of the humanity of Africans, something that at the time was disputed by many. Sancho was the most celebrated African Briton before the twentieth century, and he continues to be regarded as a distinctive voice in the period of the African slave diaspora as well as a master of the art of letter writing.

Biographical Information

Almost everything that is known about Sancho, apart from what he himself shares in his letters, is provided by Joseph Jekyll's biography that prefaces the first edition of the Letters. Sancho was born in 1729 on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic from Africa to the West Indies. He was baptized Ignatius by a bishop in Carthagena. His mother died of an unknown disease, and his father committed suicide rather than be enslaved. At the age of two, the boy was taken to Greenwich, near London, where he worked as a child slave. His owners, three sisters, named him “Sancho” after Don Quixote's companion. The three sisters treated Sancho badly, often threatening to return him to plantation slavery and refusing to educate him, thinking this to be the best way to keep him obedient. However, Sancho was befriended by the Duke of Montagu, who recognized his quick wit and provided the young slave with books to facilitate his education. When he was twenty, Sancho found life with the three sisters unbearable and persuaded the now-widowed Duchess of Montagu to employ him. He worked for her as a butler—an important position—and at this time became well versed in music, painting, the theater, and writing.

When the duchess died in 1751, she left Sancho £70 and an annual income of £30. He lost most of the money on womanizing and gambling. On the suggestion of the famous stage actor David Garrick, Sancho pursued a career in the theater; however, a speech impediment thwarted his efforts. When he lost his clothes during a bout of gambling, Sancho returned to the Montagu household, reformed his life, and in 1758 married a West Indian woman named Anne Osborne. While he worked as a valet to the new Duke of Montagu, Sancho read widely, composed music, and made a number of important friends. According to his biographer, during this time he published his Theory of Music, two plays, and several essays in newspapers, all of which are now lost. The duke treated Sancho kindly and even had Sancho's portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough. When Sancho was too unfit because of gout to continue in the duke's employ, he used his annuity to set up a grocery shop specializing in tobacco. He and his wife worked there together and welcomed visitors of all ranks, including the Montagus, Garrick, the Duchess of Northumberland, the aspiring writer George Cumberland, the sculptor Joseph Nollekens, members of London's Black community, and those who had been his fellow servants in the Montagu household. It was in the back of his shop that Sancho wrote his famous letters, including those to the novelist Laurence Sterne.

Sancho and his wife raised six children, five girls and a boy. His letters show his deep attachment to his family, whom he refers to as the “hen and chicks” and the “Sanchonets and Sanchonettas.” In addition to running his grocery shop, Sancho took an active interest in national affairs. As a propertied male, he was qualified to vote and was thus the only eighteenth-century African Briton to have voted in parliamentary elections. Sancho apparently gained some celebrity in 1776 when one of his letters appeared in Sterne's posthumously published correspondence. Sancho died in 1780 as a result of complications from gout and asthma. The notice of his death appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine, making him the first African to be given an obituary in the British press.

Major Works

Sancho's fame rests on the letters that were published two years after his death. Written for the most part to friends and acquaintances, the letters cover a wide range of subjects, from the Gordon riots of 1780 to the work of the African-American poet Phyllis Wheatley, to Voltaire's ideals of liberty. Sancho emerges through his letters as a good-humored, easy-going, family man. At the same time, he also conveys his awareness of the ambiguous position he occupies as a Black man in eighteenth-century Britain, hinting at the differences he and his family felt because of their race. His discussions of slavery and race are complex and underscore the tension he felt as both an African-born former slave and a middle-class European. The only home Sancho had ever known was England, and thus he offers a particularly interesting perspective on the Black diaspora at the height on the slave trade. The most famous figure with whom Sancho maintained a correspondence was Sterne. Identifying himself as a Black man and an admirer of the novelist, he first wrote to Sterne in July 1766 to ask him to turn his attention to the subject of slavery. Sancho corresponded with Sterne from 1766 until Sterne's death in 1768. He seems to have admired Sterne's eccentric prose style and emulates it in his letters, adopting, for example, the novelist's use of dashes instead of periods.

Critical Reception

Sancho attained some measure of celebrity in his life, moving in social circles that included artists, musicians, actors, and noblemen. According to his biographer Jekyll, Sancho was so well known that Samuel Johnson planned to write his biography, a project that never came to fruition. The two volumes of his letters, collected and published by one of his correspondents, F. Crewe, attracted over 1,200 subscribers, the highest subscription for the work of any author of his time. Apart from a handful of negative responses, reviews of the letters were favorable and the two volumes went through several printings. The literary quality of Sancho's letters was frequently cited by opponents to slavery as evidence for the intellectual equality, and therefore the humanity, of Africans. One reviewer, for example, wrote that the book “presents to us the naked effusions of a negroe's heart, and shews it glowing with the finest philanthropy, and the purest affections.” After the publication of his letters, Sancho became a well-known figure, and he was almost certainly the model for the character Shina Cambo in the anonymous 1790 novel Memoirs and Opinions of Mr Blenfield, the first work in which Black people are shown as integrated into white English society.

Little was written about Sancho's work between the eighteenth century and the 1960s, when a new edition of the Letters was released. In his introduction, the editor of the volume, Paul Edwards, negatively referred to Sancho's “assimilation” into British culture, and other critics faulted him as well for being what they considered overly patriotic, sentimental, and obsequious, especially in his admiration and imitation of Sterne. Sancho has also been criticized for not being harsher in his condemnation of slavery and racial attitudes. Many critics writing after the 1960s have rejected these reproaches of Sancho, showing that his imitation of Sterne was not mere parroting, that his work is more subversive and critical of white society than it at first appears to be, and that Sancho was fully aware of the complexity of his social status. These later critics also emphasize the high quality of his prose style during an age when letter writing was an acknowledged art form and admire his talent for capturing through his observations the character of eighteenth-century London life.

Principal Works

*Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African, To which are prefixed, Memoirs of his Life 2 vols. (letters) 1782

Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, An African, to which are prefixed Memoirs of His Life by Joseph Jekyll. With an Introduction by Paul Edwards (letters) 1968

Three Black Writers in Eighteenth Century England [edited by Francis D. Adams and Barry Sanders] (letters) 1971

Ignatius Sancho, 1729-1780: An Early African Composer in England. The Collected Editions of His Music in Facsimile [edited by Josephine R. B. Wright] (music) 1981

The Letters of Ignatius Sancho [edited by Paul Edwards and Polly Rewt] (letters) 1994

Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African [edited by Vincent Carretta] (letters) 1998

*The biography of Sancho included in this work was not acknowledged by its author, Joseph Jekyll, until the 1803 edition.

†This collection contains a selection of Sancho's letters.


Joseph Jekyll (essay date 1782)

SOURCE: Jekyll, Joseph. “The Life of Ignatius Sancho.” 1782. Reprinted in The Letters of Ignatius Sancho, edited by Paul Edwards and Polly Rewt, pp. 22-9. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, the original editor of Sancho's letters provides a brief biography of the author and discusses European opinions on the intellectual equality and humanity of Africans.]

‘Quamvis ille niger, quamvis tu candidus esses.’


The extraordinary Negro, whose Life I am about to write, was born a. d. 1729, on board a ship in the Slave-trade, a few days after it had quitted...

(The entire section is 3372 words.)

Lloyd Brown (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Brown, Lloyd. Review of Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, An African, to which are prefixed Memoirs of His Life by Joseph Jekyll. Eighteenth-Century Studies3 (spring 1970): 415-19.

[In the following review of Paul Edwards' 1968 reprint edition of Sancho's Letters, Brown claims that Sancho's assimilation into European culture was not as complete as Edwards indicates and that the writer was aware of his status as an outsider and alien despite the fact that his background and frame of reference were essentially European.]

In his biographical essay on Ignatius Sancho, Jekyll is at some pains to depreciate his own undertaking: “Of a Negro, a...

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Markman Ellis (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Ellis, Markman. “Sancho's Letters and the Sentimental Novel.” In The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel, pp. 79-86. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Ellis offers a reading of Sancho in the context of the sentimental novel and his correspondence with the novelist Laurence Sterne.]

Although the book called the Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African has mostly been considered a historical document since its first posthumous publication in 1782, the text is also a literary production. In this way the letters mentioned in the title refer not so much to a...

(The entire section is 3327 words.)

Reyahn King (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: King, Reyahn, “Ignatius Sancho and Portraits of the Black Elite.” In Ignatius Sancho: An African Man of Letters, edited by Reyahn King and others, pp. 15-43. London: National Portrait Gallery, 1997.

[In the following excerpt, King considers Sancho's role as a man of letters in London's artistic circles, discusses the portrait done of him by the artist Thomas Gainsborough, looks at the lives of other members of Britain's Black elite, and examines the most important surviving eighteenth-century portraits of Africans in Britain.]

Sancho may be styled—what is very uncommon for men of his complexion, A Man of Letters.


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Sukhdev Sandhu (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Sandhu, Sukhdev. “Ignatius Sancho: An African Man of Letters.” In Ignatius Sancho: An African Man of Letters, edited by Reyahn King and others, pp. 45-73. London: National Portrait Gallery, 1997.

[In the following essay, Sandhu situates Sancho's letters in the context of writing by and about Black people in eighteenth-century England, analyzes the style and content of the letters in detail, considers Sancho's relationship to and supposed emulation of Laurence Sterne, examines Sancho's fluctuating reputation since the eighteenth century, and discusses the style of the Letters in relation to Sancho's purpose, personality, and experiences.]


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James Walvin (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Walvin, James. “Ignatius Sancho: The Man and His Times.” In Ignatius Sancho: An African Man of Letters, edited by Reyahn King and others, pp. 93-113. London: National Portrait Gallery, 1997.

[In the following essay, Walvin provides the contemporary economic and legal context of slavery and its effects on Sancho, analyzes Sancho's contribution to what would later become the abolitionist movement, and contends that Sancho's writings take readers to the heart of the Black experience at the height of the enslaved African diaspora.]

Ignatius Sancho was born a slave in 1729, to a slave mother (who died shortly afterwards) on board an Atlantic slave ship heading...

(The entire section is 6459 words.)

Jane Girdham (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Girdham, Jane. “Black Musicians in England: Ignatius Sancho and His Contemporaries.” In Ignatius Sancho: An African Man of Letters, edited by Reyahn King and others, pp. 115-26. London: National Portrait Gallery, 1997.

[In the following essay, Girdham offers an account of a number of little-known eighteenth-century Black musicians, many of whom were friends of Sancho's, and goes on to discuss Sancho's music and explain the social significance of his compositions.]

Music-making was one of the most popular leisure activities in 18th-century Britain. Gentlemen made sure their daughters learnt to sing and play the harpsichord, and no sophisticated evening's...

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Vincent Carretta (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Carretta, Vincent. Introduction to Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African, edited by Vincent Carretta, pp. ix-xxxii. London: Penguin Books, 1998.

[In the following essay, Carretta provides a biography of Sancho, situates his work against the social background of eighteenth-century Britain, comments on his attitudes toward race and the slave trade, and finds him to be a master of epistolary art.]

One of only two people of African descent (the other is the poet Phillis Wheatley) whose works elicited Thomas Jefferson's literary criticism, Charles Ignatius Sancho, better known simply as Ignatius Sancho, is also the only eighteenth-century Afro-Briton...

(The entire section is 7702 words.)

Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook. “Ignatius Sancho: A Renaissance Black Man in Eighteenth-Century England.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 21 (autumn 1998): 106-07.

[In the following essay, Gerzina presents a brief account of Sancho's life, reputation, and unique social position in eighteenth-century Britain.]

Unknown to most Americans and even to most British, eighteenth-century England was the home of approximately 14,000 black people. Most of these residents were servants, slaves and former slaves, brought to England by the owners of West Indian and American plantations. Many other blacks in England, however, were sailors, musicians, or students....

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S. S. Sandhu (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Sandhu, S. S. “Ignatius Sancho and Laurence Sterne.” Research in African Literature 29, no. 4 (winter 1998): 88-105.

[In the following essay, Sandhu takes issue with the view that Sancho was “obsequious,” “assimilated” to English culture, a traitor to his race, and a slavish parrot of the novelist Laurence Sterne.]

The last fifteen years have seen a huge upsurge in the number and variety of books dealing with the black presence in eighteenth-century England. New histories have been written by James Walvin, Peter Fryer, Ron Ramdin, Gretchen Gerzina, and Norma Myers. New editions of slave autobiographies and other black literary texts have been...

(The entire section is 8981 words.)

Felicity A. Nussbaum (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Nussbaum, Felicity A. “Being a Man: Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho.” In Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic, edited by Vincent Carretta and Philip Gould, pp. 54-71. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

[In the following essay, Nussbaum considers how Sancho and another eighteenth-century Black writer, Olaudah Equiano, engaged and revised prevailing gendered stereotypes of male Blackness.]

I offer here the history of neither a saint, a hero, nor a tyrant.

Olaudah Equiano

Aphra Behn's description of Oroonoko's partially classical, partially African...

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Markman Ellis (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Ellis, Markman. “Ignatius Sancho's Letters: Sentimental Libertinism and the Politics of Form.” In Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic, edited by Vincent Carretta and Philip Gould, pp. 199-217. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

[In the following essay, Ellis reviews the debate among critics regarding Sancho's “assimilation” into white English culture and his “mimicry” of his famous correspondent, Laurence Sterne, and shows that Sancho reworked conventions of spontaneity, sincerity, and naturalness to argue for the Black capacity for enlightened manners.]

Over nearly two years between July 1766 and March...

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Further Reading


Dathorne, O. R. “African Writers of the Eighteenth Century.” The London Magazine 5 (September 1965): 51-8.

Considers the literary contributions of Sancho and Ottobah Cogoano against the background of eighteenth-century British attitudes.

Dommergues, André. “Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), the White-Masked African.” In The History and Historiography of Commonwealth Literature, edited by Dieter Riemenschneider, pp. 189-97. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1983.

Places Sancho in historical perspective and finds that, while he was assimilated into eighteenth-century British culture, he was acutely aware of...

(The entire section is 314 words.)