Our new exhibition, ‘Georgians Revealed: Life, Style, and the Making of Modern Britain’, which opens at the British Library later this week, might not seem to have much in common with the harsh world of Atlantic slavery. In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is greeted by a ‘dead silence’ when she asks her uncle Sir Thomas Bertram about the slave trade – a silence which the critic Edward Said famously interpreted as a sign that ‘one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both’. But the life of Ignatius Sancho (1729-80) suggests otherwise.
Sancho was born on an Atlantic slave ship, was brought to England from the Spanish West Indies at the age of two, and grew up as a household servant in Greenwich (though still, in English law, with the status of a slave – it wasn’t until 1772 that Lord Mansfield’s judgement established the legal precedent that no man could be a slave on English soil). The Duke of Montagu took an interest in Sancho and paid for his education, and after the Duke’s death in 1749 his widow took him into her service as her butler, leaving him a small annuity which eventually enabled him to set up in business as a grocer in Westminster. He became well known in London’s literary and artistic circles (Gainsborough painted his portrait; Sterne corresponded with him), and a collection of his letters was published posthumously in 1782.
Sancho blazed a trail for black Africans in Britain. He was the first black man to vote in a British parliamentary election, the first to publish any critique of slavery and the slave trade – preceding by some years the autobiography of the ex-slave and anti-slavery activist Olaudah Equiano – and the first to be accepted into London literary society. Even Thomas Jefferson, who complained that his letters were the product of a ‘wild and extravagant’ imagination, admitted that Sancho held ‘the first place among those of his own colour who have presented themselves to the public judgement’.
The British Library has recently acquired the archive of Sancho’s letters to his friend and patron William Stevenson. These are the only manuscripts by Sancho that are known to survive, and the largest single collection of letters by any black Anglo-African of this period. In one unpublished letter, Sancho describes himself as ‘an Affrican – with two ffs if you please – and proud am I to be of a country that knows no Politicians nor Lawyers’. To learn more about this exciting new acquisition, come along to the British Library Conference Centre this Friday, 8 November, at 18:45, when Prof Vincent Carretta, editor of Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century (2004), will be giving a public lecture on ‘Ignatius Sancho: Britain’s First African Man of Letters’.
Curator, Modern Historical Manuscripts