Ignatius Sancho and the Global History of Enslavement and Abolitionism

Ignatius Sancho and the Global History of Enslavement and Abolitionism 150 150 The Authorship and Activism of Alice Dunbar Nelson

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Ignatius Sancho and the Global History of Enslavement and Abolitionism

Ignatius Sancho (1729–1780), Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African, to which are Prefixed, Memoirs of his Life, by Joseph Jekyll, Esq. M.P.
London: William Sancho, 1803
EL2 .S211l 803

THE ROSENBACH’S COPY OF Ignatius Sancho’s Letters, which the institution recently acquired in March 2020, is a remarkable artifact of resilience in the face of suffering, a testament to the horrors of human trafficking, and an important primary source documenting the global history of enslavement in the 1700s.

Ignatius Sancho was born while crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a vessel carrying captive Africans to Spanish colonies in the Western hemisphere, where the captives were sold as enslaved people. Sancho was orphaned when he was only two years old. The man who enslaved the toddler in the colony of New Granada took Sancho to England and gave him to a family who lived in Greenwich. In an unlikely turn of events, Sancho befriended the 2nd Duke of Montagu, eventually escaping captivity in Greenwich to live with that aristocratic family. The Montagus provided him a job as a butler—and, vitally for Sancho’s future prospects, with opportunities to explore the arts, literature, and learning. Sancho became well-known in London society circles, especially after sitting for a portrait by the famous artist Thomas Gainsborough—who also painted Sancho’s patroness, the Duchess of Montagu. A correspondence with the famous author Laurence Sterne further enhanced Sancho’s status in learned London society. With help from the Montagu family, Sancho opened a grocery shop in London that granted him, his wife, and children a level of financial stability, and allowed Sancho to engage widely in the artistic and cultural scene in the city. Sancho, a property holder, was thus the first person of African descent known to have been qualified to vote in parliamentary elections in Great Britain. 

Sancho’s Letters were published shortly after their author’s death. The contents of the book touch on a wide range of topics, from daily life to Sancho’s negative opinions of enslavement. The book is one of the first known anti-slavery accounts written by a formerly enslaved person. The Rosenbach’s copy of the Letters is especially interesting because this edition was published by Sancho’s son—making the volume the first English-language book to be both written and published by persons of African descent. Sancho’s son, William Leach Osborne, transformed his father’s old grocery store into a printing house and book shop, making the story of Sancho’s family especially interesting to book enthusiasts.

The remarkable nature of Sancho’s life and its memorialization in this book call to mind the stories of so many other enslaved people who, deprived of their freedom and lacking the social connections and economic opportunities Sancho eventually enjoyed, never escaped captivity to find freedom.