The first African prose writer whose work was published
in England - his Letters appeared in 1782, two years after
his death, and was an immediate best-seller - was born in
1729 on a slave ship in the mid-Atlantic. At Cartagena,
on the coast of Columbia, he was christened Ignatius. His
mother died soon afterwards, and his father killed himself
rather than exist as a slave. When Ignatius was about two,
his owner brought him to England and gave him to three maiden
sisters who lived in Greenwich. These ladies called him
Sancho because they thought he looked like Don Quixote's
squire. They did not believe in the education of slaves;
nonetheless, Ignatius taught himself to read and write.
The Duke of Montagu, who lived in nearby Blackheath, liked
the young man's acquisitive nature and bought him books,
and tried to persuade the sisters to educate him, but they
would not, So Ignatius ran away, and stayed with the Montagus.
The duchess engaged him as a butler, and he was able to
indulge in his passion for reading and subsequently wrote
poetry, two stage plays and a Theory of Music dedicated
to the Princess Royal. He was also a composer, with three
collections of songs, minuets, and other pieces for violin,
mandolin, flute and harpsichord all published anonymously.
He loved the theatre and would regularly go to Drury Lane
to see the great actor Garrick, who later became a friend
Sancho was embraced by London's literary and artistic set.
Gainsborough painted his portrait in 1768. He also became
friends with the historical painter John Hamilton Mortimer,
and the writers Samuel Johnson and Laurence Sterne. Sancho
left the service of the Montagus in 1773, and with a legacy
left to him by the Duchess of Montagu, he opened a grocery
shop in Charles Street, Westminster with his wife Anne.
He died in 1780, and two years later his Letters were published,
proving that 'an untutored African may possess abilities
equal to a European'. His work attracted over 1,200 subscribers.
'Let it no longer be said', wrote one reviewer, 'by half
informed philosophers, and superficial investigators of
human nature, that Negers, as they are vulgarly called,
are inferior to any white nation in mental abilities'.