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Before the Windrush – Ignatius Sancho and the black Britain history hides

A new one-man play shines a light on a forgotten 18th-century slave who took London by storm. LOUISE RAW speaks to actor Paterson Joseph about the role

Charles Ignatius Sancho was both hilarious and indefatigable.

Ignatius Sancho
Ignatius Sancho

He would need both qualities. Born on board a slave ship after the abduction of his parents from Africa and orphaned in infancy, he was sent to Greenwich in 1731, aged around two, to be kept as something between a prisoner and pet by three unmarried sisters. 

This wasn’t uncommon: enslaved black children were quite the 18th-century status symbol, as evidenced by the many portraits of the “great and good” in which they are included.

Of the later lives of the majority of these children we currently know little: what we can deduce suggests they soon outgrew their novelty value.

Like possessions which no longer pleased, they could be re-sold “back” to an Africa that was completely alien to them, or simply turned out of doors to survive as best they could.   

Yet from his traumatic beginnings, Sancho became the first Afro-Briton to vote. A noted man of letters, composer and poet, he would prove crucial to the history of abolition. 

He was also tremendous company. Thanks to his correspondence we know that this was a wit and bon vivant of the old school.

He once lost everything including the clothes he stood up in gambling; overindulged in food and drink until he developed gout; read avidly, and dreamed of being an actor.

A success story, then, and perhaps an indication that black Britons were more integrated, and earlier, than commonly believed? 

It is, of course, not nearly that simple. The recent treatment of the Windrush generation reminds us that our country’s attitude even to those people of colour we invite — or compel — to live among us, is far more complex, and invariably worse, than a superficial reading of Sancho’s story suggests. 

The Sancho brought to us by Paterson Joseph’s one-man play Sancho: An Act of Remembrance, currently enjoying its London premier at Wilton’s Music Hall, has a fierce determination to enjoy life, and a great facility for that enjoyment — nonetheless, the chill winds of insecurity eternally threaten the sunny uplands of the life he has fought to build.

The loss and pain inherent in both of his individual situation, and that of his black compatriots in general, can threaten to overwhelm him, even in the midst of joy.

His life certainly had strokes of good fortune, some as literally and figuratively incredible as the bad. As a young boy, he was castigated by the three sisters on being found reading. For all they indulged him in some things, they didn’t want an educated “negro” in the household, believing knowledge must inevitably unsettle what they saw as his “natural” simplicity and docility.

The real threat, of course, was that the high ideals of freedom expressed in the 18th-century literary canon were going to disturb black Britons — as they would white working-class people and women of all classes — because of their horribly marked contrast with their exploited condition.  

And so it proved. Sancho, always a highly intelligent boy, became painfully conscious of the injustice of his enslavement.

At seven years old, he fled the household, ending up on Blackheath, then the haunt of highwaymen and a desolate place for a young boy. There he had the luck to encounter one of the few men in the area both prepared and sufficiently well-placed to help him.

For an aristocrat, the second Duke of Montagu seems to have been a reasonably decent bloke: a patron of the country’s first Foundling Hospital, his empathy for children may, in part, have been explained by his mother’s description of him in middle-age: “…his talents lie in things only natural in boys of fifteen years old, and he is about two and fifty; to get people into his garden and wet them with squirts, to invite people to his houses and put things in beds to make them itch, and twenty such pretty fancies as these.”

Instantly impressed by Sancho’s determination to educate himself, Montagu tried to persuade the sisters to allow the boy access to books, but they would not be moved.

However, Montagu and his wife Mary were able to entertain Sancho regularly at Montagu House, where he could at last satisfy his thirst for knowledge in their excellent library, and immerse himself too in music and poetry, writing and composing accomplished pieces. 

Finally, a young man now, Sancho escaped the sisters for the last time, running to Montagu House in 1749, at the age of 20. The Duke had died, but the Duchess employed him as her butler. 

By now a sophisticated and charming young man, Sancho must have been an asset to the household. He lost an important figure, perhaps even a quasi-maternal one, in his life when the Duchess died two years later. 

He received a sizeable annuity and year’s pay on her death, but, unused to having wealth to play with, play he did, and lost the lot at the card table. 

In his thirties Sancho married a West Indian woman of colour, Ann Osborne, and settled to family life. The couple had seven children together, though three died in childhood. Around the time of the birth of their third child, Elizabeth, Sancho again took up employment with the Montagu descendants. 

He was by now considered a man of note and learning, mixing naturally with high society, his portrait painted by the eminent Gainsborough. Unlike most portraits of black Britons, he isn’t presented in a servile posture (the usual carrying a tray or offering something to a white master, as Joseph wryly notes in the play).

Resplendent in gold-trimmed waistcoat and frock coat, Sancho is clearly a man of substance (in every sense — the corpulence that would affect his health is suggested).

In 1766, at the height of the slavery debate, Sancho wrote an eloquent appeal to writer Laurence Sterne, asking him to take up his pen for the abolitionist case: “That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many — but if only one — Gracious God! — what a feast to a benevolent heart!”

What writer could resist? Sterne was then engaged upon Tristram Shandy, and eagerly took up Sancho’s challenge.  

In 1774 Sancho, suffering with gout, left service to set up a grocer’s shop in Westminster, close to the Houses of Parliament. 

This gave him more time for writing and socialising, and his shop became a veritable salon, frequented by musicians, thinkers, actors like the legendary David Garrick, and prominent Whig statesman and abolitionist Charles James Fox, who steered through Parliament the resolution pledging an end to slavery. 

In spite of all this, Sancho remained sadly clear-eyed about his enforced outsider status, made to feel “only a lodger, and hardly that” in the country he’d inhabited since infancy.

Describing a trip out with his children, he recorded being “gazed at — followed, etc etc — but not much abused.” On another occasion he was “generously insulted.” 

How it must have wounded this most patriotic of men to be made to feel unwelcome in the Britain he loved.   

Sancho died from the effects of gout on December 14 1780, and became the first person of African descent given an obituary in the British press. The posthumous publication of his correspondence with Sterne established his status.

He lives on, however, in Paterson Joseph’s remarkable play, which can only be called a tour de force. One of our most versatile actors, with roles in everything from Casualty to Green Wing and Peep Show, as well as huge US series like Timeless, Joseph adopts so many personas so creditably, it genuinely doesn’t feel like a solo performance. I particularly enjoyed Sancho’s wife Ann, a loving but redoubtable woman Joseph imbues with a self-possessed, no-nonsense tooth-sucking Jamaican charm. 

Joseph has been researching and performing an evolving version of the show for several years, which gives him a consummate ease with the role he plays with tremendous verve, humour and winning 18th-century high camp. 

It’s somehow surprising to discover, therefore, that Joseph didn’t grown up knowing about Sancho — that, in fact, he, like so many Britons of all heritages, never learned at school that the Windrush was far from the beginning of the black British presence on our shores.

Certainly the mainstream version of history has done little to contradict this — and this matters a great deal.

Studies have proved (and common sense suggests) that if a child’s culture doesn’t represent them, this has a measurable negative effect on self-esteem.

It’s also limiting — as has been succinctly said: “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” 

Admittedly Sancho somewhat contradicts this, and was able to somehow afford himself the mental freedom to break new ground, but most of us need our role models. 

I tell Joseph I have always been fascinated by the way in which Sancho challenges our perceptions of what a “woke” hero should be, with his hedonism and refusal to be simply a spokesman for his colour. Joseph agrees — this is what drew him to Sancho, once the Gainsborough portrait had drawn him in.  

He tells me he’s encountered a few raised eyebrows over his choice of Sancho rather than a more straightforward abolitionist hero like Olaudah Equiano.

I’m with Joseph, however, on the idea that Sancho’s insistence on being accepted in his full and equal humanity, as a person with faults and foibles as well as great courage, is in its way revolutionary. 

Joseph, too, balks at the role of one-note proselytiser — like Sancho, he believes righteous anger about racism is more engaging and, crucially, more effective when presented with warmth and humour, rather than pure didacticism.

He is not a “black actor,” but an accomplished artist who wants to play great parts — even if he has to write them himself. 

I tell him I believe it’s a responsibility of white dramatists, film-makers, casting companies and commissioners to take their fair share of the work of making sure our actors of colour are fairly catered to, and to do it with enthusiasm — it’s high time. But would Joseph find it offensive for white playwrights to create black characters?

Not at all, he says, and cites Eugene O’Neill, who “truly knew” black people, living, working and socialising with them as well as writing them. 

White writers don’t need to “write what they know” in such a reductive way they only “write white,” he says — but they must “know what they write.”

They should do their research with as much passion and thoroughness as with any other subject — really get to know black families, listen to them, work with them and give them a genuine voice, and actors of colour the roles and opportunities they deserve. 

I can’t but agree. In the meantime, book your tickets at speed for the London run of his play at the marvellous Wilton’s Music Hall, and spend an evening with two exceptional and thoroughly engaging thinkers, artists and entertainers.  

Sancho: An Act of Remembrance, written by and starring Paterson Joseph, is at Wilton’s Music Hall until June 16 (Wiltons.org.uk).

Dr Louise Raw is a historian, broadcaster, author of Striking a Light on the 1888 Matchwomen’s Strike, and organiser of the annual London Matchwomen’s Festival, which takes place on June 30 in Bow (tickets here). 

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