Charles Ignatius Sancho 1729-1780

Written by Clara Waters

Charles Ignatius Sancho is perhaps best described in his own words, “jolly African, who wishes health and peace to every religion and country throughout the ample range of God’s creation!”  (Letter 128) and “The first part of my life was rather unlucky, as I was placed in a family who judged ignorance the best and only security for obedience. A little reading and writing I got by unwearied application. The latter part of my life has been – through God’s blessing, truly fortunate, having spent it in the service of the best families in the kingdom. My chief pleasure has been books. Philosophy I adore.” (Letter 36)

Charles Ignatius Sancho was born on a slave ship in 1729, traveling from Guinea to the Spanish West Indies. His mother died soon after and his father committed suicide. The orphan was baptised and aged two, was taken to England by his owner and given to three unmarried sisters living in Greenwich. They gave him the surname Sancho and he was their servant for eighteen years. The Duke of Montagu, who was a frequent visitor at the house, became impressed by Sancho's intellect and character and encouraged him to learn to read.

Eventually Sancho worked as a butler for the Montagu family and had the opportunity to study music, literature and writing. In due course he was able to purchase and run a grocery shop in Westminster and was happily married with several children. Being fond of reading, music and acting, he entertained many famous figures of literary and artistic London. A rare privilege for a man of African descent, as well as having his portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough, he was also the first known African to vote in a British election, the first to have an obituary published in the national newspapers and was the first published Black British composer. He wrote a large number of letters which were collected and published two years after his death in 1782. To the eighteenth century opponents of the slave trade Sancho was a symbol of ‘the humanity of Africans’.

The following extracts taken from various letters help to give an insight into his nature.

“For my part, I love liberty in every sense, whilst connected with honesty and truth.” (Letter 129)

“Ever let your actions be such as your own heart can approve - always think before you speak, and pause before you act… To think justly, is the way to do rightly - and by that means you will ever be at peace within.”(Letter 13)

“I trust, where a good man dwells, there peace makes its sweet abode.”(Letter 33)

 “I have often observed - there is more value in the manner of doing the thing - than in the thing itself.” (Letter 37)

“Souls …, who delight in giving pleasure, enjoy a heaven on earth; for I am convinced that the disposition of the mind in a great measure forms either the heaven or hell in both worlds.”(Letter 92)

“I am clear every good affection, every good sensibility, every heart-felt joy - humanity, politeness, charity - all, all are streams from that sacred spring; so that to say you are good-tempered, honest, social… is only in fact saying, you live according to your Divine Master’s rules…”(Letter1)

 “We know good from evil; and in serious truth, we have powers sufficient to withstand vice, if we will choose to exert ourselves. In the field, if we know the strength and situation of the enemy, we place out-posts and centinels - and take every prudent method to avoid surprize. In common life, we must do the same; - and trust me, my honest friend, a victory gained over passion, immorality, and pride, deserves Te Deums, better than those gained in the fields of ambition and blood.”(Letter 8)

 “There is something so amazingly grand - so stupendously affecting - in the contemplating the works of the Divine Architect - in the moral or the intellectual world, that I think one may rightly call it the cordial of the soul - it is the physic of the mind - and the best antidote against weak pride - and the supercilious murmurings of discontentment. – Smoaking my morning pipe, the friendly warmth of that glorious planet the sun - the leniency of the air - the cheerful glow of the atmosphere-made me involuntarily cry, “Lord, what is man, that thou in thy mercy art so mindful of him! Or what the son of man, that thou so parentally carest for him!”  ...The tender mercies of the Almighty are not less to many of his creatures-but their hearts … are cold, and untouched with the sweet ray of gratitude. …Amongst, and at the very head of our riches, I reckon the power of reflection: it is that breath of life which the Sacred Architect breathed into the nostrils of the first man - image of his gracious Maker.”(Letter 45)

“I am reading a little pamphlet, which I much like: it favours an opinion which I have long indulged - which is the improbability of eternal Damnation - a thought which almost petrifies one - and, in my opinion, derogatory to the fullness, glory, and benefit of the blessed expiation of the Son of the Most High God - who died for the sins of all – all – Jew, Turk, Infidel, and Heretic; - fair  – sallow – brown – tawney –black - and you - and I and every son and daughter of Adam.” (Letter 48)

Sancho was full of praise for his wife. “…the only intrinsic nett worth, in my possession, is Mrs Sancho - whom I can compare to nothing so properly as to a diamond in the dirt - but, my friend, that is Fortune’s fault, not mine - for had I power, I would case her in gold.”

“Dame Sancho would be better if she cared less. – I am her barometer - if a sigh escapes me, it is answered by a tear in her eye; - I oft assume a gaiety to illume her dear sensibility with a smile - which twenty years ago almost bewitched me; - and mark! - after twenty years enjoyment - constitutes my highest pleasure!”

 “Nature never formed a tenderer heart-take her for all in all - the mother – wife – friend - she does credit to her sex - she has the rare felicity of possessing true virtue without arrogance - softness without weakness - and dignity without pride …. And to my inexpressible happiness, she is my wife, and truly best part, without a single tinge of my defects.” (Letters 22, 54 & 87)

Having himself experienced enduring friendships, Sancho felt able to counsel his many younger correspondents. “Real friendships are not hastily made - friendship is a plant of slow growth, and, like our English oak, spreads - is more majestically beautiful, and increases in shade, strength, and riches, as it increases in years.”

“Friendship founded upon right judgement takes the good and the bad with the indulgence of blind love; - nor is it wrong - for as weakness and error is the lot of humanity - real friendship must oft kindly overlook the undesigning frailties of undisguised nature.” (Letters 2 & 10)

Sancho sometimes reflected on the passage of time, on life and death. “Time keeps pacing on, and we delude ourselves with the hope of reaching first this stage, and then the next; till that ravenous rogue Death puts a final end to our folly.”

 “Time tries us all- but, blessed God! In the end we shall be an over-match for Time, and leave him, scythe and all, in the lurch-when we shall all enjoy a blessed Eternity. In this view, and under the same hope, we are as great, yea, as respectable and consequential-as Statesmen! Bishops! Chancellors! Popes! Heroes! Kings! Actors of every denomination-who must all drop the mask-when the fated minute arrives.” (Letters 126 & 132)

There were times when despite his sunny disposition, Sancho felt despondent. “– in spight of my philosophy - the cares and anxieties attendant on a large family and small finances sometimes overcloud the natural chearfulness of yours truly.”

“- to be happy in despight of fortune, shews the Philosopher - the Hero - the Christian. I must confess, my fortitude (which is wove of very flimsy materials) too oft gives way in the rough and unfriendly jostles of life.” (Letters 34 & 54)

Sancho prided himself for never knowingly misleading any young person among his correspondents. “May riches visit you, coupled with honour and honesty! - and then sweet peace of mind shall yield you a dignity - which kings have not power to confer:-then will you experience that the self-ennobled are the only true noble.”

 “My dear youth, be proud of nothing but an honest heart.”

 “Make human nature thy study wherever thou residest - whatever the religion or the complexion, study their hearts. – Simplicity, kindness, and charity, be thy guide; - with these, even Savages will respect you - and God will bless you!” “

Let me, as your true friend, recommend seriously to you to make yourself acquainted with your Bible: - believe me, the more you study the word of God, your peace and happiness will increase the more with it…use every endeavour to be a good man -and leave the rest to God. Above all, improve your mind with good reading - converse with men of sense, rather than the fools of fashion and riches - be humble to the rich - affable, open, and good-natured to your equals - and compassionately kind to the poor.” (Letters 68, 69, 70, 79 &152)

Although grateful for his many blessings, Sancho was very outspoken about slavery and colonisation.  “I am sorry to observe that the practice of your country (which as a resident I love - and for its freedom, and for the many blessings I enjoy in it, shall ever have my warmest wishes – prayers - and blessings ;) I say, it is with reluctance that I must observe your country’s conduct has been uniformly wicked in the East – West Indies - and even on the coast of Guinea. The grand object of English navigators -indeed of all Christian navigators - is money – money – money – for which I do not pretend to blame them. Commerce was meant, by the goodness of the Deity, to diffuse the various goods of the earth into every part - to unite mankind in the blessed chains of brotherly love – society - and mutual dependence. …In some of your letters you speak (with honest indignation) of the treachery and chicanery of the natives. -My good friend, you should remember from whom they learnt those vices: - the first Christian visitors found them a simple, harmless people - but the cursed avidity for wealth urged these first visitors (and all the succeeding ones) to such acts of deception - and even wanton cruelty - that the poor ignorant natives soon learnt to turn the knavish and diabolical arts which they soon imbibed - upon their teachers. (Letter 68)

As a conscientious citizen and eligible to vote, Sancho was very much interested in national politics.  “We want, alas! - only a few honest men of sound principles and good plain understandings - to unite us - to animate with one mind! One heart! - one aim! - and to direct the rouzed courage of a brave people – then we might hope for golden times.” (Letter 111)

Although in great physical discomfort towards the end of his life, Sancho was nonetheless full of faith and hope. His sense of gratitude and love for his fellow men shone on. “Excuse my scrawling hand - in truth my eyes fail me; I feel myself since last winter an old man all at once - the failure of eyes - the loss of teeth - the thickness of hearing - are all messengers sent in mercy and love, to turn our thoughts to the important journey which kings and great men seldom think about: - it is for such as you to meditate on time and eternity with true pleasure - looking back, you have very much to comfort you; - looking forward, you have all to hope.” (Letter 141)

Below is a link to a sample of Sancho’s music.

Ignatius Sancho Minuets