On August 7, 1768, Mr. M had a headache. Luckily, his friend Ignatius Sancho offered him a cure.
“The best recipe for your headache (if not the only thing that will relieve you),” the Englishman wrote in a letter, “is to cut your hair.”
Of all the known recipients of Mr. Sancho’s letters, Mr. M was one of the most frequent. In a letter sent a month after the headache was cured, Sancho thanked Mr. M for the gift of a pig. In another, he begs her to gossip: “What sketches have you done?—What books have you read?—Which girls did they court?” In a letter dated August 12, 1776, Sancho apologizes for not having written earlier; on February 9, 1777, he complains that Mr. M has not written.
Such is the portrait that Sancho paints of his own rich life as a black man living in eighteenth-century England. Over the course of 150 letters to Mr. M and many others, Sancho describes himself not as a character in a stereotypical black narrative of the time, but rather as an avid letter writer who rubbed shoulders with the upper echelons of British society. His letters narrate his friendships, his sense of humor, his travels and his daily existence.
And now, thanks to a research project at London’s Northeastern University mapping her writing to the UK and beyond, her letters have been rediscovered in a new light, which could change the way we think about the black experience. under the British crown.
Led by Northeastern professors Nicole Aljoe and Olly Ayers, along with four undergraduate research assistants, the Ignatius Sancho’s London project extracts data from digital and physical archives of Sancho’s letters and maps them, creating an interactive resource to help the public understand black life in the 18th century. England.
In the process, the team got to know Sancho as a person, someone they say was smart, direct and funny, treating people of all races and classes equally.
“There is a lot of comedy on the cards. I always find myself laughing,” says Libby Collard, a sophomore history major with politics and international relations. “I love the fact that he was that kind of person. He talks to everyone the same way.”
While the project is brand new and sheds a new light on Sancho’s work, his fame precedes him by a couple of hundred years. Believed to be the first black man to vote in Britain, Sancho was, at various times, employed by members of the noble Montagu family, owner of a grocery store a few blocks from 10 Downing St., musician, traveller, abolitionist . , husband and father.
But history knows him best as an avid letter writer. In 150 of Sancho’s letters on record, he documents the everyday life of a black Briton, with accounts ranging from the mundane (recounts of theater outings, time spent with family and friends, and complaints about rotten sausages) to historical events such as the Golden Riots, where hundreds of Londoners died.
He is most famous for one letter in particular, which he wrote to Laurence Sterne, author of the classic 1759 novel Tristram Shandy. In the letter, Sancho urges Sterne to include abolitionist themes in the then unpublished Tristram Shandy.
I am sure you will applaud me for begging you to give half an hour of attention to slavery as it is practiced today in our West Indies. That topic, treated in your striking way, would relieve the yoke (perhaps) of many. —but even if only one—Merciful God! What a feast for a benevolent heart!
This letter, which later appeared in the newspapers, propelled Sancho to what at the time constituted stardom. People even showed up at his store to meet him.
Thanks to their connection to the Montagu family, the cards have a wide geographic range, from England and Scotland to India and New York. As a valued employee of Montagus, Sancho traveled to his 27 homes across the country, was allowed use of his library, and had his own room in his Richmond villa.
For that reason, the northeast project “started in London, but the map is much broader now than when we started,” says Collard.
Of course, a project like this does not come without obstacles.
One of these was Sancho’s own biography, at least the one that was published alongside his letters in 1782. The page-and-a-half biography has long been accepted as fact when it comes to Sancho’s life. However, the team found that the account is largely based on stereotypes and riddled with inaccuracies.
“The biography that was written at the time basically fit the genre of what an amazing black life should have been,” says Ayers.
That means the team had little foundation on which to build their timeline and were instead tasked with disproving what was there. According to the biography, Sancho was born on a slave ship in the Middle Passage, but, says Ayers, the group discovered that “it is highly unlikely.” They also question the part of his biography that says his heritage was at stake, since he was still working for Montagus during the period in question.
Archive searches presented another challenge: digitized archives do not correct misspellings or spellings of names, which were not standardized at the time. And the letters themselves (the British Library has letters that, for some reason, were not included in the published volume) are difficult to read due to the intricate writing. It is also assumed that many letters were lost.
The team managed to uncover previously unknown facts, such as that he had nine children instead of seven, which they discovered through parish archives.
Despite the team’s rigorous investigation, there are still gaps in Sancho’s biography. It is still not clear whether Sancho was born a slave or free, much less where he was born.
But their diligent work has paid off. By mapping Sancho’s life, the project tells a story that challenges the stereotypes perpetuated in his biography and, in turn, subverts the popular, whitewashed version of British history. In 1800, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 blacks lived in London. Some were slaves or former slaves, but others were citizens or free people like Sancho. As a member of the Montagu house, Sancho moved in circles that transcended social classes, and even witnessed the signing of laws. He had money and resources, and owned his own business, which, in particular, was taken over by his wife after his death.
Ellen Valente, a sophomore majoring in English literature with a philosophy, sees Sancho’s life itself as a form of challenge. “Being in those spaces with so much power and so much wealth, I think it must have been a huge statement in itself,” says Ella Valente.
Odile Jordan, a first-year philosophy and creative writing student, was struck by how real Sancho seemed after reading his letters. In that way, they helped her connect with her own story. “These were people like my friends, my family, like me,” she says. “It was both challenging and, I think, valuable to be able to close the gap with the material in this way.”
The Sancho project was completed in May. But the research team’s work is far from over; later, they are expanding their scope to include other black figures of the time, especially abolitionists. The abolitionist movement was growing at this time before the end of the slave trade in 1807.
This expanded scope will help the team continue to challenge common knowledge of black history. It is a liberating feeling, says Valente, to question the official stories told by those in power. Now, when he reads Jane Austen, he wonders if any of the characters could be people of color, and she’s more likely to question the history she was taught growing up.
“It changed a lot my attitude towards the way we read our past,” she says. “Sancho gives us a way to see it again, and that’s very exciting.”
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