Ignatius Sancho: Abolitionist, Author, Composer, and First Black Briton to Vote

Born on a slave ship destined for the Spanish colony of New Granada in 1729, Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) started his life on the Middle Passage, the forced voyage across the Atlantic Ocean that millions of Africans endured during the slave trade. His mother died when he was still a newborn, and his father killed himself, as the historical record goes

At the age of two, he was sold to three sisters living in Greenwich, England. These sisters gave him the surname Sancho after the squire in Don Quixote. He grew up as a domestic slave to the three sisters. 

One frequent visitor to the sisters in Greenwich was John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu (1690-1749). He took a liking to Sancho for his intelligence and frankness. Montague encouraged Sancho to learn how to read and write, sending him books from his own personal library. 

Portrait of Ignatius Sancho by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1768. Credit: Public Domain, National Gallery of Canada

Its not entirely clear when Sancho shed his status as a slave and became a free man, but at some point in his life, he was emancipated and employed as a butler for the Duke and Duchess of Montagu. During this time in his life, Sancho fully explored his passions for reading, writing, and music. He wrote prose and poetry. He composed musical scores. He lived this way for the next twenty years of his life, working for the Montagu family all the while. 

In 1758, Sancho married Anne Osborne, a woman of African descent from the West Indies. They had a fruitful marriage with several children. After Sancho left his position in the Montagu family’s household, he opened a grocery shop in Westminster with money given to him by the Montagus. He sold many commodities you would expect to see in a shop in 18th century England, including sugar, tea, and tobacco. 

By the time Sancho purchased his grocery shop, he was a known figure in England. Many people visited his shop to chat with him and gain his advice, including Charles James Fox (1749-1806), a prominent abolitionist and statesman. 

Portrait of an African by Allan Ramsay, c. 1760. Sitter was once thought to portray Olaudah Equiano, but now many believe its Ignatius Sancho. Credit: Public Domain, Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery

Being a financially independent man with a household of his own, he was eligible to vote. He voted in 1774, being the first man of African descent to do so in a British general election, and voted again in 1780. His vote went to his friend, Charles James Fox in the 1780 election. Unfortunately, Sancho passed away in December 1780 and did not live to see his friend become Britain’s first Foreign State Secretary.

During his lifetime, Sancho was best known as a writer of letters and social commentary, penning critiques of politics and culture. Sancho found a friendship in the novelist Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), writing letters to him encouraging him to support abolitionism. Sterne’s letters were published in 1775, which brought public attention to Sancho. 

Using this momentum, Sancho wrote to editors of newspapers advocating the end of the slave trade. These letters were published in said newspapers, and for the first time, exposing many white Britons in England to the written words and life experiences of a man of African descent. 

Portrrait of Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) by Joshua Reynolds, c. 1760. Credit: Public Domain, © National Portrait Gallery, London

A few years after his death, Sancho’s letters were published in a two-volume set titled The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African. The collection was successful and detailed the injustices of the slave trade and Sancho’s frustrations as a black intellectual in 18th century England. 

Not only do his letters survive, but so do some of the musical pieces published in his lifetime. Totalling sixty-two compositions, an assortment of songs and dance sets have survived to the present day. 


Ignatius Sancho on the British Library

IGNATIUS SANCHO (1729-1780) by WILLIAM J. ZICK, BlackPast.org

Ignatius Sancho: African Composer and Man of Letters by Brycchan Carey, BrycchanCarey.com

Ignatius Sancho: The Composer on BlackHistoryMonth.org.uk

Ignatius Sancho: The First Black Briton to Vote in an Election by Harry Sherrin, History Hit

Ignatius Sancho: Writer, Musician, Playwright and Abolitionist on Westminster Abbey

Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African on the British Library

The only surviving manuscript letters of Ignatius Sancho on the British Library

Who is the sitter in ‘Portrait of an African’ attributed to Allan Ramsay? on Art UK

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