Ignatius Sancho The Many Black First of Britain
Updated: Dec 29, 2021
Ignatius Sancho is considered the first Black British composer. As an African scholar, he criticized the 18th-century slave trade and wrote letters from the phenomenological experience of being a well-educated African in the UK. Sancho was known as "The Exceptional Negro," becoming an emblem of Africans' humanity in an era fraught with racial tension and colonization. In his letters, Ignatius Sancho stated that he was born in Africa in 1729. His mother, a White Englishwoman, died while he was a child, and his father, an African, unalive himself to avoid enslavement. Sancho was orphaned and kidnapped to London at two years old to become a slave servant for three sisters in Greenwich. In his memoir, he wrote, "The earliest portion of my existence was quite unfortunate since I was placed in a household that regarded ignorance as to the greatest and only safeguards for obedience." While in Greenwich, he met John Montagu, the 2nd Duke of Montagu, who fostered his studies by providing literature to read. Sancho was a self-taught and an avid reader who took advantage of the libraries at the Montagu estate.
When John Montagu passed, Sancho fled Greenwich and convinced the Duke's widow Mary Montagu to hire him as a butler. He worked at the Montagu household for the next 20 years as a butler and then served as personal valet to George Montagu, the son-in-law of John Montagu. While at the Montagu estate, Sancho developed a passion for music and learned to play the harpsichord. By the age of twelve, he had produced his first piece of music. Sancho also became an epistolary writer, penning critiques of 18th-century culture and politics. He was well-revered by other intellectuals of his time, building a profound friendship with Laurence Sterne, encouraging him to support abolitionist causes. The publication of Sterne's letters brought Sancho into the public eye. He wrote letters under his name pseudonym, Africanus, to editors of newspapers vividly depicting the inhumane practice of slavery. Sancho wrote a gripping first-person account of the Gordon Riots in 1780, a wave of rioting and disturbance that swept across London in protest to the discriminatory laws against Roman Catholics.
After Sancho departed from the Montagu home, he married Anne Osborne, a woman of West Indian descent, in 1758. They owned a grocery store in Westminster and had seven children; tragically, many did not make it to adulthood. As a financially independent male householder, Sancho earned the right to vote, becoming the first known African-born voter in a British election. He voted in both the 1774 election and the 1780 election. Unfortunately, Ignatius Sancho died from the effects of gout on 14 December 1780. In 1782, many of his letters were published post-humorously under "The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho." He was buried in the churchyard of St. Margaret's Westminster. Sadly, he has no memorial at the church, and no inscription exists from documented epitaphs.
What is less known about Sancho is the exquisite quality of his music compositions. Sancho was a prolific music composer, publishing four collections of compositions, a treatise entitled A Theory of Music, and at least two plays that are lost to history. Recently three compositions decreed as being "composed by an African" were later discovered to be Sancho compositions. In one of Sancho's collections, he composed 24 dancing melodies, which have French and English titles, are based on the most popular musical forms in elegant Georgian society. Unique to Sancho's compositions is his addition of providing step-by-step dancing directions. in 'Les Contes des Fee. he wrote, "The male should 'turn his Partner, Balance' and do a 'Rigadoon Step,' a challenging hopping manoeuvre." His music is of similar feel and quality to his contemporaries of the late Baroque and early Classical-era composers such as Handel and Mozart. Much of his musical style is a love letter to the UK, and many of his dances have a light English quality. Unlike Mozart, Sancho had a simplistic style and leaned more towards the Baroque era, with expected harmonies, supporting charming melodies that showcase the fine quality of that harpsichord, baroque flute, and many other instruments of the time.