Among the many new items recently added to LSU’s Rare Book Collection is a copy of Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African. Published in London in 1782, these letters were written by one of eighteenth-century England’s most well-known and admired men of African descent.
Ignatius Sancho was orphaned shortly after his birth in 1729 on a slave ship en route to the West Indies. At the age of two, he was sent to England and eventually became a butler in the service of the Duke of Montagu. The duke recongized the young man’s talent and saw to it that he received an education. There were few opportunities for educated Africans in England in those days, however. Sancho attempted a career on the stage, playing roles such as Othello, but he was unsuccessful. Thanks to an annuity from the late duke, he was finally able to set up shop as a grocer in London. By all accounts Sancho was an entertaining figure, hobnobbing with members of fashionable English society as well as the actor David Garrick and the novelist Laurence Sterne. In addition to being a “man of letters,” he also composed music and published a now-lost work on music theory.
Although slavery was outlawed in England in 1772, it continued to be permitted in the British colonies until the early 1800s. The abolition movement was on the rise, however, and men like Ignatius Sancho were held up as examples of Africans’ potential. The editor of his letters, a Miss Crewe, declared: “[My] motive for laying them before the public is the desire of showing that an untutored African may possess abilities equal to a European.” The book was popular, and Miss Crewe was pleased to find that the world was not “inattentive to the voice of obscure merit.”