Ignatius Sancho – A man of letters

Posted 1st May 2024

It’s inspiring to see someone rise above overwhelmingly difficult beginnings, and a life could hardly have started in more challenging circumstances than that of the baby boy who came to be known as Charles Ignatius Sancho, writes Laura Malpas.

He was born in 1729 somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean in a slave ship bound for the Spanish colonies of South America. His survival was remarkable as it was more common for newborn babies to be thrown overboard to prevent the loss of monies to be made on the mother. The baby boy had both parents onboard with him but on arrival at the Spanish colony of New Grenada, his mother died, and his father took his own life rather than live as a slave. The Roman Catholic bishop of the colony baptised and named the orphan baby Charles Ignatius before he was sold to a slave trader.

Charles, barely two years old, was shipped to London and given to three wealthy unmarried sisters – probably the Legge sisters of the Earl of Dartmouth. They lived in Greenwich, opposite to the London residence of the 2nd Duke and Duchess of Montagu, whose country seat was Boughton House in Northamptonshire.

At the time it was a highly fashionable display of wealth to have a black slave-servant as a maid or pageboy in one’s household, the younger and prettier the better. The sisters treated the toddler as an amusing pet, and despite his obvious intelligence tried to keep him in a state of ‘African ignorance’. They added the surname ‘Sancho’ after the fictional character Sancho Panza, the squire of Don Quixote in the novel by Cervantes.

Ignatius Sancho later wrote, “The first part of my life was rather unlucky, as I was placed in a family who judged ignorance the best and only security for obedience. A little reading and writing I got by unwearied application – the latter part of my life has been – thro’ God’s blessing, more fortunate.”

This domestic atmosphere was challenging for the growing boy, and he welcomed the opportunity to meet and converse with neighbours John and Mary, the Duke and Duchess of Montagu. Impressed with his quick wit and intelligence, the Duke encouraged the unwilling sisters to have him educated. The Duke stepped in often, taking him away to visit the Duchess and giving Ignatius books to help him learn. The Duchess was particularly fond of the young boy, and he appears next to her in a portrait painted by Enoch Seeman to be seen at Boughton House where he was a frequent visitor.

Accountancy records also show that Ignatius, identified as “ye Black of her Grace” and “The Boy Charles” was paid wages as a servant. Records show that he was educated, nursed when ill, and exquisitely well dressed – even his shoes were made by the Duchess’s own shoemaker.

Returning to regular life with the sisters became suffocating for Ignatius. When the Duke of Montagu died in 1749 it must have seemed like his intellectual escape route was closing. He ran away to enter service with the Duchess, rising to serve her as butler. He remained a favourite with the Duchess, for when she died two years later, he was left a legacy of £70, around £20k in today’s money, with an annuity of £30 for life.

Ignatius then left the household and spent several years enjoying the high life in London. His intellectual and artistic qualities once nurtured by his patrons were now realised. He wrote, composed, and mixed with the cultural elite, becoming quite the celebrity himself. Thanks to his connection to the Montagu family, one of the highest in the land, he was accepted in society as an intellectual.

At this time, the immorality and inequities of slavery were becoming more and more obvious to society, and Ignatius was naturally seen as a spokesperson. He exchanged letters with many campaigning for the abolition of slavery.

Ignatius’s new financial freedom also allowed him to enjoy a healthy amount of socialising, especially with the theatrical world. Aged twenty-nine, he happily married a West Indian lady, Anne Osbourne, and became a devoted husband and father to seven children. Vigorous socialising and fatherhood emptied Ignatius’s purse, and he decided to return to service with his patrons, acting as valet to the 3rd Duke of Montagu. Again, he was able to share in the Montagus’ appetite for art, literature, and music, further developing his reputation as a refined man of culture.

At the height of the slavery debate Ignatius wrote to the Anglo-Irish novelist Lawrence Sterne, encouraging him to lobby for abolition. Sterne replied very positively, and their correspondence was published, forming an important element of 18th century abolitionist literature. As a result of this exposure, Thomas Gainsborough whilst painting the portrait of the Duchess also painted Ignatius’s portrait.

Gout eventually forced Ignatius’s retirement from service. With the 3rd Duke’s help, in 1773 he set up a grocery store in London and was patronised by many of the aristocracy and other leading figures of the day. His ownership of both business and property also qualified him to have a vote in the general election, and he is famous for being the first person of African origin to vote in England.

Ignatious and Mary

Whilst a shopkeeper, Ignatius wrote a treatise on music, two plays, and continued his campaign for the abolition of slavery. Despite his success, it seems he never felt truly at home. He noted that despite being in the country since he was two years old, he felt that he was ‘only a lodger, and hardly that’. However, his happy family life and successful marriage was a balm in his later years.

He died of gout in December 1780, and was buried at St Margaret’s in Westminster, the first person of African descent to receive an obituary published in the British press. Despite his status as an intellectual, his wife and three of his children were left without funds. His friend Frances Crewe arranged for 160 of his letters to be published, raising funds for the family, and providing Ignatius a published legacy. Over a thousand people subscribed to the volumes, including the Prime Minister of the time. The publication contributed much to the campaign which led to the first Act of the Abolition of British Slavery receiving Royal Assent in 1807.

The fond connection between the Duchess and Ignatius’s family continued, and forty years after his death, correspondence shows that support was still being given.

Ignatius’s writing continues to have impact today, and although he has been criticised for being a token celebrity, and of pandering to the elite, there is no doubt that he was a remarkable man who used his talents to overcome massive social handicaps, and to help change society for the better.

If you would like to learn more, please read a very well researched and entertaining book ‘The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho’ a novel written as a memoir by Paterson Joseph.

If you would like to learn more about Boughton House in Northamptonshire where Ignatius regularly visited and worked, please visit www.boughtonhouse.co.uk/sancho

The Northamptonshire Heritage Forum has something for everyone interested in learning more about our county’s history. If you would like more information, or are interested in joining the Forum and supporting its work, please visit www.northamptonshireheritageforum.co.uk