The first black man to ever vote in an election in Britain did so in 1774. Let that sink in for a moment, thirty-three years before the slave trade was outlawed in the British Empire, fifty-eight years before slavery was officially abolished in the Empire and ninety before the US fought a civil war over the issue, a black man voted in an election. Who was this man? Ignatius Sancho.
Most of what we know about Ignatius Sancho comes from Joseph Jekyll’s 1782 biography which was published to accompany a series of letters Sancho had written, which were also being posthumously released. According to Jekyll’s biography Sancho was born on a slave ship en route from Guinea to the Spanish West Indies in 1729, though Sancho himself states in one of his letters that he was born in Africa.
Sancho is believed to have grown up an orphan, with Jekyll stating that his mother died when Sancho was an infant and his father committed suicide rather than live as a slave. Sancho’s owner took him to London at the age of two and left him in the company of three unmarried sisters in Greenwich where he lived until 1749.
It was during this period that Ignatius met the well known prankster John Montagu 2nd Duke of Montagu who took a liking to him and encouraged his interest in furthering his education, by giving him books to read and other recommendations. When the Duke died in 1749, Ignatius ran away from Greenwich and convinced the Dowager Duchess of Montagu to employ him, he would work for the Montagus for the next twenty years, first as a butler for the Dowager Duchess then as a valet for the 3rd Duke of Montagu.
During his time with the Montagus, Sancho furthered his education making full use of the vast libraries at the Montagu house, and interacting with a variety of highly cultured visitors who appeared at Montagu House. Such was the esteem with which Sancho was held, that when Thomas Gainsborough visited to paint a portrait of the Duchess of Montagu, he asked Sancho to also sit for one.
Further to his meetings with several people of note, during his time with the Montagus, Sancho developed a wide network of correspondence, eventually becoming one of the best known epistolary writers, penning accounts and critiques of 18th century culture and politics.
Amongst his correspondents was one Laurence Sterne. One of the most famous letters that Sancho sent during this time to Sterne was in 1766, when he urged the well known novelist to throw his persuasive and creative power behind the emerging abolitionist cause. When Sterne’s letters were published in 1775, Ignatius gained public recognition.
He used the new found attention to write to editors at newspapers, advocating for the ending of the slave trade, which highlighted to inhumanity of the slave trade to a wide range of readers. These letters are said to have played a role in influencing the growing abolitionist movement and may have even influenced Lord Mansfield’s judgement on the issue of slavery within England itself.
In 1773, Ignatius left the Duke of Montagu’s service, and now suffering from gout with Montagu’s help opened up a grocery shop in Mayfair, Westminster, where he sold items such as tobacco, sugar and tea. The shop did so well, he was able to qualify as a voter in Britain, and consequently voted in the 1774 and 1780 general elections. Sancho was also able to socialise more and enjoy his pastimes of literature and music, where he wrote and published A Theory Of Music and two plays.
Despite stating once, that despite having lived in the British Isles since the age of two, he still felt a stranger and a traveller within them, Ignatius supported the monarchy and unlike other well known figures such as Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke, supported Britain during the American Revolutionary War.
When he died in 1780, he was widely mourned, and he became the first black person to have an obituary published in the British press.
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