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Study Guide | Theater

Sancho: An Act of Remembrance


“Because She Has No One to Stand Up for Her:”

The Abolition Movement in Sancho’s Britain

WHEN Tom, an’ please your honor, got to the shop, there was nobody in it but a poor negro girl, with a bunch of white feathers slightly tied to the end of a long cane, flapping away flies -- not killing them…

A Negro has a soul? an' please your honor, said the Corporal (doubtingly).

I am not much versed, Corporal, quoth my uncle Toby, in things of that kind; but I suppose, God would not leave him without one, any more than thee or me ----

---- It would be putting one sadly over the head of another, quoth the Corporal.

It would so, said my uncle Toby.

Why then, an' please your honor, is a black wench to be used worse than a white one?

I can give no reason, said my uncle Toby ------

---- Only, cried the Corporal, shaking his head, because she has no one to stand up for her

---- 'Tis that very thing, Trim, quoth my uncle Toby, ---- which recommends her to protection ---- and her brethren with her; 'tis the fortune of war which has put the whip into our hands now ---- where it may be hereafter, heaven knows! ---- but be it where it will, the brave Trim! will not use it unkindly.

---- God forbid, said the Corporal.

Amen, responded my uncle Toby, laying his hand upon his heart

—Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, Volume IX, Chapter VI

It was the excerpt above that inspired Sancho to begin his famous correspondence with Laurence Sterne; as mentioned, the published exchange between the two made Sancho’s reputation as a man of letters. Many involved in the growing abolitionist movement pointed to Sancho and his accomplishments as proof that the Enlightenment ideals of universal freedoms and rights must apply to people of color as well. In his lifetime, Sancho spoke and wrote eloquently about the evils of slavery. Eventually, Britain would become the first major power to abolish slavery completely, although this did not happen until a half-century after Sancho’s death. And it is estimated that during the period from 1700 to 1810, somewhere around three million Africans were taken from their homes and sold into bondage on British ships.

Around the time of Sancho’s death, several important factors arose to fan the flames of the abolitionist movement. This phase of the movement was touched off by a celebrated court case involving the slave ship Zang. The captain of the Zang had thrown 133 sick slaves overboard, and the owners of the ship tried to collect the value of the slaves from their insurance company. The proceedings of the trial revealed for the first time to the general public the horrifying conditions aboard slave ships, and white Britons such as Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp began to speak out against slavery in speeches and in print. In fact, it was Sharp who, as early as 1772, had defended James Somerset, an escaped slave who had been recaptured by his master; the judge in the case ruled that Somerset could not be taken out of England against his will. Then, when the American Revolution ended in 1783, Britain received an influx of African-Americans who had sided with the English in the war. Their stories of what slave life was like in the Colonies provided more fuel to the abolitionists.

In 1783, a group of Quakers made the first abolitionist petition to Parliament. It was unsuccessful, but it set a precedent for trying to end slavery through legislative action. While Clarkson, Sharp and their allies continued to promote the movement, several people of color contributed their voices to abolitionism as well. Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave, wrote vividly of the horrors of slavery in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) and became a prominent leader in the movement, while in 1787, Ottabah Caguano published his “Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species.” In that same year, the various factions of the abolitionist movement came together to form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Several years later, Equiano, Caguano and other free people of African descent founded the influential Sons of Africa.

These groups continued to press the issue in Parliament. In 1788, the House of Commons received over a hundred petitions regarding slavery in just three months. By 1792, that number rose to over five hundred, including petitions from every county in England, as well as Scotland and Wales. In response to the lack of governmental action, successful boycotts arose against products that were harvested or made by slaves in the Americas. As time went on, the abolitionist movement continued to gain momentum in Parliament under the leadership of representative William Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian from the town of Hull. As Wilberforce once wrote,

“I could not believe that the same Being who forbids rape and bloodshed had made rape and bloodshed necessary to the well-being of any part of his universe. I felt a confidence in this principle, and took the resolution to act; soon indeed, the light broke in upon me.”

Shortly after the turn of the century, Parliament finally began to enact legal change. In 1805, a law was passed forbidding slavery in any newly conquered British territory; just two years later, Parliament officially ended the Atlantic slave trade. Slavery as an institution was completely abolished in Britain and her empire in 1833. It would be another three decades before the United States, bloody and bruised by a horrible civil war, finally followed England’s example and abolished slavery with the 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution.


Abolition Project, The

British Broadcasting Company, The

History Extra

New York Public Library, The

Recovered Histories