Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780): From African Slave to Composer & Author

[Ignatius Sancho: An African Man of Letters; Reyahn King et al.; National Portrait Gallery of the U.K. (1997)]

Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) was an African composer and author who grew up as a house slave in an aristocratic household in Greenwich, England. After emancipation he worked for the Montagu family, which allowed him to thrive, and which later enabled him to open a small shop of his own in Westminster in 1773. He campaigned against slavery, but the sugar he sold was produced by slaves. Sancho's property rights made him eligible to vote, and he cast his ballot for Charles James Fox, a leader of Parliamentary radicals in the 1780 election. Sancho is the first known Black person to vote in Britain.

The book pictured above is Ignatius Sancho: An African Man of Letters. It was written by Reyahn King, Sukhdev Sandhu, James Walvin and Jane Girdham, and was published by the National Portrait Gallery of Great Britain (1997). Dr. Brycchan Carey of London's Kingston University has published "The extraordinary Negro": Ignatius Sancho, Joseph Jekyll, and the Problem of Biography', British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 26, 2 (Spring 2003), 1-13. His website on Sancho is It reproduces the complete text of Joseph Jekyll's Life of Sancho. Dr. Carey writes, in part:

The major problem with Jekyll's Life of Ignatius Sancho is that much of it is unverifiable, and, worse still, much of it directly contradicts what Sancho himself says to people in his letters. For example, although Jekyll tells us that Sancho was born on a slave ship, Sancho himself seems convinced that he was born in Africa. For a more detailed reading of Jekyll's Life of Ignatius Sancho, see my article...that shows that Sancho was almost certainly not born on a slave ship.”

Sancho's shop in Westminster was modest in size, yet it received a steady stream of customers who sought his advice and company as well as his goods. Walvin relates:

Sancho is best known for the numerous letters he exchanged with a variety of people throughout Britain. A common theme was his moral outrage at slavery. Among his most prominent correspondents was Laurence Sterne, author and country pastor of the novel
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, published in serial form. Sancho explained his origins, referred to a specific condemnation of slavery, and urged Sterne to write about slavery as it existed in the British West Indies:


IT would be an insult on your humanity (or perhaps look like it) to apologize for the liberty I am taking.—I am one of those people whom the vulgar and illiberal call "Negurs."—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, truly fortunate, having spent it in the service of one of the best families in the kingdom.—My chief pleasure has been books.—Philanthropy I adore.”

“Of all my favorite authors, not one has drawn a tear in favor of my miserable black brethren—excepting yourself, and the humane author of Sir George Ellison.—I think you will forgive me;—I am sure you will applaud me for beseeching you to give one half-hour's attention to slavery, as it is at this day practised in our West Indies.—That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many—but if only of one—Gracious God!—what a feast to a benevolent heart!”

Sancho died in London on December 14, 1780. His letters were published as a book in 1782. Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African quickly became a bestseller. Late in 2007, London's Museum in Docklands announced “London, Sugar & Slavery” a permanent exhibit to commemorate the 200-year Anniversary of Britain's Abolition Act:

London, Sugar & Slavery will show it was not just a few evangelical parliamentarians who abolished the transatlantic slave trade, but a widespread grass roots movement that included people freed from enslavement who wrote about their experiences, thousands of ordinary citizens who lobbied collectively and women who campaigned with their purses by boycotting sugar that had been produced by enslaved Africans.”

The blog
Sierra Eye elaborated on this idea on the opening day of the exhibit, listing Ignatius Sancho among those Africans who made themselves heard in opposition to slavery:

“The Buxton table, at which the terms of the Abolition Act were hammered out, will be on display. But the gallery will debunk the myth that abolition was achieved by a few evangelical parliamentarians. Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano, Ignatius Sancho, Phillis Wheatley and Mary Prince, are amongst those African voices whose eloquent testimony were crucial to forcing change. London, Sugar & Slavery acknowledges enslaved Africans as the prime agents of resistance.”

Jane Girdham points out that Sancho was much better known for his letters than for his musical activities. She quotes Dr. Josephine Wright's description of Sancho's works which have survived to today:

“Ignatius Sancho was one of the few Africans in 18th-century England to become a member of the middle class, highly literate and an amateur musician and composer. He was recognised in his lifetime as a man of cultivated taste in various artistic areas, but his legacy of four volumes of published music provides virtually our only information about his musical activities.”

“Sancho's surviving music consists of one set of songs and three sets of dances, all published over roughly a twelve-year period between 1767 and 1779, and totalling 62 short compositions (Wright, 1981, pp. 3-62).”

Because of his amateur status, Sancho paid the costs of printing his music himself. Girdham finds his songs to be among Sancho's "most appealing" pieces. She explains they were written in the "galant" style which was fashionable at the time. The songs include settings of poems by Shakespeare, Anacreon and David Garrick. Garrick was a friend whom Girdham describes as "the most famous actor of his time" and the owner of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Girdham closes her chapter with this observation:

Josephine B. Wright edited Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), An Early African Composer in England: The Collected Editions of His Music in Facsimile, Garland Publishing, Inc. (1981). A 15-page introduction calls Sancho "a Renaissance man":

“One early African composer who lived in that country was Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), a Renaissance man of learning and apparently the first black musician to publish his music. This volume is devoted to his biography and a study of his musical compositions. An investigation of Sancho's music is long overdue in light of the composer's historical significance as a black intellectual of the eighteenth century and the increased public interest in African and Afro-American history.”

“He was conversant with the writings of Voltaire, the abolitionist literature of Sterne and Sharp, as well as with the poetry of his contemporary, the Afro-American slave Phyllis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784).”

There can be no pretense that the music of Ignatius Sancho equals that of the leading composers of his day. But his musical compositions reveal the hand of a knowledgeable, capable amateur who wrote in miniature forms in an early Classic style. His compositions are of great historical significance in understanding the roots and origins of a classical tradition among black musicians in the Western hemisphere.” Read full entry on Ignatius Sancho at

Ignatius+Sancho" rel="tag">Ignatius Sancho
African+Composer" rel="tag">African Composer
African+Slave" rel="tag">African Slave
Black+Composer" rel="tag">Black Composer
Black+History" rel="tag">Black History
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