Ignatius Sancho had the misfortune to be born on a slave ship, or at least this is what his official biography states. It is more likely that he was born in Africa and then taken onto a ship with his parents. His mother died when he was very young, and his father committed suicide, unable to reconcile himself to a life of slavery. When he was two years old his owner brought Ignatius to England and he became a servant for three sisters who resided in Greenwich. The sisters were against the education of slaves but Sancho became acquainted with the Duke of Montagu through them and he gave the young man books. In 1749, he left the sisters and became butler to the duchess of Montagu. Under the care of the Montagus, the young man was able to enjoy reading, music and writing, all with their full encouragement.
Sancho married Anne Osborne, a woman of West Indian origin, in the early 1760s. They had seven children and he was a devoted husband, often writing on family life in his letters to friends. In the 1770s, Sancho began to suffer from ill health, developing gout. With the help of the Montagus, he acquired a grocer’s shop in Charles Street, Westminster. This new venture also marked Sancho as a financially independent householder making him eligible to vote. It is thought, therefore, that he is the first person of African origin to vote in a parliamentary election in Britain.
Through his shop Sancho built up quite a circle of friends, both in politics and the arts. Charles James Fox (Whig leader of the time and well known as an anti-slavery campaigner), David Garrick, the legendary Shakespearean actor and theatre manager, novelist Laurence Sterne (author of Tristram Shandy) and the artist Thomas Gainsborough are among his impressive list of associates.
Ignatius Sancho died in 1780, but his letters were published posthumously a couple of years later in two volumes entitled The Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African. It was a popular book and earned much needed royalties for Sancho’s widow, Anne. It is still easily obtainable today, with the Waterstones website offering at least six versions, the latest published in 2015.
Sancho famously wrote on the subject of slavery, and one of his most famous letters is one that he wrote to Laurence Sterne, urging his friend to include a passage in Tristram Shandy which lobbied for the abolition of the slave trade. He was also known for his accounts of the Gordon riots of June 1780 which took place six months before his death. The central location of his shop meant that the mob passed by his door. What had begun as an anti-Catholic protest descended into chaos and looting when the planned march on the House of Commons got out of hand and became a riot.
Ignatius Sancho is today commemorated with two plaques in London. One is near the site of his shop in Westminster, the other is in Greenwich Park close to where Sancho grew up.