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Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience (1999)

Editors Henry Louis Gates JR and Kwame Anthony Appiah

Europe: Article written by Leyla Keough , page 1665 and 1666

Ignatius Sancho was born on a slave ship enroute to the West Indies; both of his parents died during the journey, casualties of the middle passage. Ignatius Sancho never lived in Africa; Sancho was in many ways a product of western civilization. His letters written between 1768 and 1780, and published posthumously in 1782, proved to the English public that an African could not only master the language and literature of England but become a discriminating reader and a discerning critic.

Upon arriving in Britain, Sancho was bought by three sisters in Greenwich who treated him poorly and denied him education. But the sister’s neighbors, the duke and the duchess of Montagu, were impressed by Sancho’s curiosity about books and his quick mind and secretly lent him materials to read. In 1749 when the sisters threatened to sell him into American slavery, Sancho fled to the Montagu household.

The duke and the duchess of Montagu, died a few years later, leaving an inheritance to Sancho, who soon left Greenwich for the literary and artistic circles of London. There he wrote music, and befriended musicians and artists, including the famous actor David Garrick.

After a brief period of reckless living and gambling, Sancho returned to serve the new duke of Montagu. But gout and weight problems led him to retire in 1773, and he subsequently opened his own London grocery store, which became popular less for Sancho’s produce than for his counsel. The duchess of Queensberry sought his help with her favored but trouble making servant, Julius Soubise. Other patrons included the artists Joseph Nollekens and the painter John Hamilton Mortimer, who consulted Sancho for his artistic sensibilities.

Sancho proved skillful in cultivating friendship and came to have many correspondents including the English novelist Laurence Sterne. Though Sancho praised Sterne’s words against slavery, he wrote little on the subject himself, except to place it within a wider context of greed for money and lust for power of the Christian East Indian traders.

Sancho held a deep faith that the conditions Blacks and the poor faced in this life would be resolved in "our next habitation," where, "there will be no care- love will possess our souls and praise and harmony and ever fresh rays of knowledge, wonder and mutual communication will be our employ. He advocated patience to one Black correspondent and advised him to "tread as cautiously as the strictest restitute can guide ye" – yet must you suffer from this – but armed with truth – honesty – and conscious integrity – you will be sure of the plaudit and countenance of the good" in this conviction, and in his words of affection for his West Indian wife Anne, and their six children, Sancho’s writing displays the sentimentalism of his era.

Although Sancho supported such liberal causes as a more equitable distribution of wealth, as a businessman, his interests lay in the proliferation of commerce, and, as a patriot, he denounced radicalism unlike Black radicals such as Ottobah Cugoano or Robert Wedderburn, he preferred to use moral persuasion and his own example to convince the English people that Africans deserve equal treatment. Scholar Lloyd Brown explains that Sancho’s background as a culturally assimilated outsider "subverted the standard images of the uncivilized Negro." Although he did not write anti slavery appeals, Sancho’s published letters testified to the humanity of Africans, thus strengthening the arguments of English Abolitionists.


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