Letters of Ignatius Sancho offer window to life of Black man in 18th-century London

painted portrait of 18th century black man
Northeastern researchers mapped Ignatius Sancho’s letters. What they found could change the way we think about Black life in 18th-century England. AP Photo/National Portrait Gallery

On Aug. 7, 1768, Mr. M had a headache. Luckily, his friend Ignatius Sancho offered up a cure. 

“The best recipe for your aching head (if not the only thing which will relieve you),” the Englishman wrote in a letter, “is cutting off your hair.” 

Of all the known recipients of Mr. Sancho’s letters, Mr. M was one of the most prevalent. In a letter sent a month after the headache cure, Sancho thanked Mr. M for the gift of a pig. In another, he begs him for gossip: “What sketches have you taken?—What books have you read?—What lasses gallanted?” In a letter dating Aug. 12, 1776, Sancho apologizes for not writing sooner; on Feb. 9, 1777, he complains that Mr. M hasn’t written.

Such is the portrait Sancho paints of his own rich life as a Black man living in 18th-century England. Over the course of 150 letters to Mr. M and many others, Sancho depicts himself not as the character in a stereotypical Black narrative of the time, but rather as an avid letter writer who rubbed elbows with the upper echelons of British society. His letters chronicle his friendships, his sense of humor, his travels and his everyday existence. 

And now, thanks to a research project at Northeastern University – London that maps his writing in the United Kingdom and beyond, his letters have been rediscovered in a new light, potentially changing the way we think about the Black experience under the British crown.

Led by Northeastern professors Nicole Aljoe and Olly Ayers along with four undergraduate research assistants, the Ignatius Sancho’s London project pulls data from digital and physical archives of Sancho’s letters and maps them, creating an interactive resource to help the public understand Black life in 18th-century England.

In the process, the team has gotten to know Sancho as a person—someone who they say was intelligent, forthright and funny, and who treated people equally across race and class.

“There’s a lot of comedy in the letters. I’m always finding myself laughing,” says Libby Collard, a second year majoring in history with politics and international relations. “I just love the fact that he was that kind of person. He talks to everybody in the same way.”

While the project is brand new and shines a fresh light on Sancho’s work, his fame predates it by a couple of hundred years. Believed to be the first Black man to vote in Britain, Sancho was, at various times, an employee of members of the noble Montagu family, the owner of a grocery store just blocks away from 10 Downing St., a musician, traveler, abolitionist, husband and father. 

But history knows him best as an avid letter writer. In 150 of Sancho’s letters on record, he documents the everyday life of a Black Briton, with accounts ranging from the mundane—chronicling outings to the theater, time spent with family and friends, and complaints over rotten sausages—to historic events like the Gordon Riots, where hundreds of Londoners died. 

He’s most famous for one letter in particular, which he wrote to Laurence Sterne, author of the classic 1759 novel Tristram Shandy. In the letter, Sancho urges Sterne to include abolitionist themes in the then-unpublished Tristram Shandy. 

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!

This letter, later featured in newspapers, propelled Sancho to what in that time constituted stardom. People even showed up at his shop to meet him.

Thanks to his connection to the Montagu family, the letters have a wide geographical range, from England and Scotland to India and New York. As a valued employee of the Montagus, Sancho traveled to their 27 homes around the country, was allowed to use their library, and had his own room in their Richmond villa. 

For that reason, the Northeastern project “started in London, but the map is a lot wider now than it was when we first started,” Collard says.

Of course, a project like this one does not come without obstacles.

One of them was Sancho’s biography itself—at least, the one that was published along with his letters in 1782. The page-and-a-half-long biography has long been accepted as fact when it comes to Sancho’s life. However, the team found, the account is largely based on stereotypes and riddled with inaccuracies. 

“The biography that was written at the time basically conformed to the genre of what an amazing Black life should have been,” Ayers says. 

That means the team had little foundation on which to build their timeline, and were instead tasked with disproving what was there. According to the biography, Sancho was born on a slave ship in the Middle Passage, but, Ayers says, the group found that “it’s highly unlikely.” They also question the portion of his biography that says he gambled away his inheritance, as he was still working for the Montagus during the period in question.

Archive searches presented another challenge: digitized archives do not fix spelling errors or the spellings of names, which were not standardized at the time. And the letters themselves—the British Library has letters that, for whatever reason, were not included in the published volume—prove difficult to read due to the intricate handwriting. It’s also assumed that many letters were lost. 

The team managed to discover previously unknown facts, like that he had nine children instead of seven, which they discovered through parish archives. 

Despite the team’s rigorous sleuthing, there are still gaps in Sancho’s biography. It’s still unclear whether Sancho was born enslaved or free, let alone where he was born. 

But their diligent work has bore fruit. By mapping Sancho’s life, the project tells a story that defies the stereotypes perpetuated in his biography, and, in turn, subverts the popular, whitewashed version of British history. In 1800, it is estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 Black people lived in London. Some were slaves or former slaves, but others were citizens or free people like Sancho. As a member of the Montagu household, Sancho moved in circles that transcended social classes, and was even a witness to legislation being signed. He had money and resources, and owned his own business, which, notably, his wife took over following his death. 

Ellen Valente, a second-year student majoring in English literature with philosophy, sees Sancho’s life in itself as a form of defiance. “By being in those spaces with such power and such wealth, I think that must have been such a statement in itself,” Valente says.

Odile Jordan, a first year studying philosophy and creative writing, was struck by how real Sancho seemed after reading his letters. In that way, they helped her connect with her own history. “These were people just like my friends, my family, just like myself,” she says. “It was both challenging and, I think, valuable to be able to close the distance to the material in this way.”

The results of the Sancho project went live in May. But the research team’s work is far from over; next, they’re expanding their reach to include other Black figures of the era, especially abolitionists. The abolitionist movement was growing around this time ahead of the end of the slave trade in 1807.

This expanded reach will help the team continue to question the common knowledge of Black history. It’s a liberating feeling, Valente says, to question official histories as told by those in power. Now, when she reads Jane Austen, she wonders if any of the characters could be people of color, and she is more likely to question the history she was taught growing up.

“It very much changed my attitude toward how we read our past,” she says. “Sancho gives us a way to look at it again, and that’s very exciting.”

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