Ignatius Sancho Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.