After being born on a slave ship in 1729, Ignatius Sancho lived in Greenwich for much of his life and was the first known person of African heritage to be published in prose in Britain or to vote in a British election.
He spent his early years working for three sisters in Greenwich before running away to live with and work for the Montagu family. John, Duke Montagu, had encouraged Ignatius to read and lent him books from his library at Blackheath. This continued education would lead to him becoming a respected composer, actor and ‘man of letters’ – someone known for being able to read and write at a time when literacy was not common. His erudition, charisma and fierce patriotism for his adopted country gained him a circle of noble and literary friends. Combined with his success in business and the arts, this made Sancho the image of the ideal Georgian man and he well earned his famous portrait by Gainsborough.
First black British voter
Using his writing, Ignatius was an influential figure in the movement to abolish the slave trade. He corresponded with famous novelist Thomas Sterne asking for support, whose letter of response became one of the most important pieces of writing in the abolition movement.
He became a shop keeper in 1774 with John Montagu's support, and through his shop in Westminster he met and befriended some of the most famous and influential writers, politicians and actors at the time. As a financially independent male he qualified to vote in the 1774 and 1780 parliamentary elections, becoming the first person of African heritage to do so.
He died in 1780 and soon after his letters were published as a book which was an immediate hit, republished four times and used as part of the movement to end slavery. An extract from one letter reads:
“… the Christians’ abominable traffic for slaves and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the African Kings – encouraged by their Christian customers who carry them guns to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.”
Details of his life are scarce, but with Montagu House overlooking Greenwich Park there’s no doubt that Ignatius spent a lot time there. The house was torn down in 1914 and all that remains of it is a sunken bath believed to have been used by Princess Caroline of Brunswick, and a section of the original wall.
A physical reminder of Ignatius Sancho’s place in Greenwich’s history can be found on this wall in the south west corner of the park. A plaque in his memory highlights what he achieved and the difficult times he lived in.
Ignatius Sancho’s influence today
Paterson Joseph, well known for his roles in popular TV programs Peep Show and Timeless among others, wrote a play based on Sancho’s life due to his frustration at the lack of roles for black actors in period dramas.
Sancho: An Act of Remembrance was well received in New York’s National Black Theatre during the spring of 2018, with audiences drawing parallels to the situation in America and Britain today. After each performance the theatre encouraged people to vote, giving out registration forms for them to take away.
Ignatius Sancho's journey from being born a victim of the slave trade to successful businessman, writer, composer and abolitionist in the midst of a profoundly racist and prejudiced society, was remarkable. No history of modern Britain can be complete without him.
“African man of letters, composer and opponent of slavery. Born on a slave ship, he was encouraged to educate himself by John 2nd Duke of Montagu and served as butler to the Duchess here in Montague House.”
Greenwich Park Revealed is an exciting new project which aims to conserve and enhance Greenwich Park’s historic and natural heritage, fund a new learning centre and develop training, leisure and volunteering opportunities for a growing and diverse local audience. Find out more.