Thomas Gainsborough: Ignatius Sancho, 1768 Oil on canvas, 73.7 x 62.2 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: © NGC
The first African writer whose work was published in England – his Letters appeared in 1782, two years after his death, and was an immediate best-seller. Born in 1729 on a slave ship in the mid-Atlantic, at Cartagena, on the coast of Columbia, he was christened Ignatius. His mother died soon afterwards, rather than exist as a slave his father killed himself. When Ignatius was about two, his owner brought him to England and gave him to three maiden sisters who lived in Greenwich. These ladies called him Sancho because they thought he looked like the Spanish writers picture of Don Quixote’s squire. They did not believe in the education of slaves; nonetheless, Ignatius taught himself to read and write.
The Duke of Montagu, who lived in nearby Blackheath, admired the young man’s inquiring nature and bought him books. The Duke also tried to persuade the sisters to educate him, but they would not, and so Ignatius ran away, and stayed with the Montague’s. The duchess engaged him as a butler, and he was able to indulge in his passion for reading and subsequently wrote poetry, two stage plays and a Theory of Music dedicated to the Princess Royal. He was also a composer, with three collections of songs, minuets, and other pieces for the violin, mandolin, flute and harpsichord all published anonymously. He loved the theatre and would regularly go to Drury Lane to see the great actor Garrick, who later became a friend. Sancho was embraced by London’s literary and artistic set.
Gainsborough painted his portrait in 1768. He also became friends with the historical painter John Hamilton Mortimer, and the writers Samuel Johnson and Laurence Sterne. Sancho left the service of the Montague’s in 1773, and with a legacy left to him by the Duchess of Montagu, he opened a grocery shop in Charles Street, Westminster with his wife Anne. He died in 1780, and two years later his Letters were published, proving that ‘an untutored African may possess abilities equal to a European’. His work attracted over 1,200 subscribers.
‘Let it no longer be said‘, wrote one reviewer, ‘by half informed philosophers, and superficial investigators of human nature, that Niggers as they are vulgarly called, are inferior to any white nation in mental abilities’.