Ignatius Sancho; Historical Documents; Letters 18th Century London
On Aug. 7, 1768, Mr. M had a headache. Luckily, his friend Ignatius Sancho offered up a cure.
“The best recipe for your aching head (if not the only thing which will relieve you),” the Englishman wrote in a letter, “is cutting off your hair.”
Of all the known recipients of Mr. Sancho’s letters, Mr. M was one of the most prevalent. In a letter sent a month after the headache cure, Sancho thanked Mr. M for the gift of a pig. In another, he begs him for gossip: “What sketches have you taken?—What books have you read?—What lasses gallanted?” In a letter dating Aug. 12, 1776, Sancho apologizes for not writing sooner; on Feb. 9, 1777, he complains that Mr. M hasn’t written.
Such is the portrait Sancho paints of his own rich life as a Black man living in 18th-century England. Over the course of 150 letters to Mr. M and many others, Sancho depicts himself not as the character in a stereotypical Black narrative of the time, but rather as an avid letter writer who rubbed elbows with the upper echelons of British society. His letters chronicle his friendships, his sense of humor, his travels and his everyday existence.
And now, thanks to a research project at Northeastern University – London that maps his writing in the United Kingdom and beyond, his letters have been rediscovered in a new light, potentially changing 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 pulls 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 18th-century England.
In the process, the team has gotten to know Sancho as a person—someone who they say was intelligent, forthright and funny, and who treated people equally across race and class.
“There’s a lot of comedy in the letters. I’m always finding myself laughing,” says Libby Collard, a second year majoring in history with politics and international relations. “I just love the fact that he was that kind of person. He talks to everybody in the same way.”
While the project is brand new and shines a fresh light on Sancho’s work, his fame predates it by a couple of hundred years. Believed to be the first Black man to vote in Britain, Sancho was, at various times, an employee of members of the noble Montagu family, the owner of a grocery store just blocks away from 10 Downing St., a musician, traveler, 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—chronicling outings to the theater, time spent with family and friends, and complaints over rotten sausages—to historic events like the Gordon Riots, where hundreds of Londoners died.