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Study Guide | Theater

Sancho: An Act of Remembrance


The story that Joseph has uncovered and brought to life seems too incredible to be real. Although many of the details of Sancho’s early life are unclear, we know that he was born Charles Ignatius on a British slave ship in 1729. He was orphaned at a very young age; his mother probably died young and it is believed that his father committed suicide. At some point, he was taken from his home in New Granada (in present-day Colombia) and sent to Greenwich, England, where he was raised as a servant in the house of three spinster sisters. According to legend, the young boy reminded the sisters of Sancho Panza, the main character’s sidekick in Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote, and the nickname stuck. Among the sisters’ friends and frequent visitors was the Duke of Montagu, who, impressed with Sancho’s natural intelligence and curiosity, taught the young man to read and lent him books from his personal library. Given his new education, Sancho found life as a servant to the sisters unbearable, and he ran away. He was taken in by the Montagu family, who continued his formal education.

Sancho grew up to be a noted musician, actor, composer and author of several works on music theory. As the Duke of Montagu’s personal valet, he had access to the royal court of King George III; in fact, he dedicated one of his works on music theory to the King’s daughter. It was during this period that his portrait was painted by England’s most famous portrait artist, Thomas Gainsborough; it is this paining that inspired Paterson Joseph to explore Sancho’s story, and we see a reproduction of that painting in the background of this show. (The portrait is not in England; it is on display in Canada’s National Gallery in Ottawa.) It was also during this period that Sancho became an important participant in the growing British abolitionist movement, writing letters and pamphlets and organizing both native Britons and freed slaves into protest movements. Among his correspondence were letters to the clergyman Laurence Sterne, author of the classic comic novel Tristram Shandy and other works. When the letters between Sancho and Sterne were published, Sancho won fame in England as a man of letters.

In 1763, Sancho married Ann Osborne, a woman from the West Indies. They had seven children together, four of whom survived into adulthood. Several years later, suffering from ill health, Sancho decided to open up a greengrocer’s store in the Westminster section of London. The store was successful, and attracted many of London’s most prominent citizens, including politicians, businessmen and creative people like Sterne, Gainsborough and the legendary Shakespearean actor David Garrick. By 1774, Sancho was able to save enough money to buy some property, which in turn made him eligible to vote in the local Westminster election. On that fateful election day, Sancho was challenged by the Mayor, who proclaimed that Sancho could not vote because of his race. Able to produce the proper documentation, Sancho was allowed to proceed, making him the first person of African descent to ever vote in a British election. In the clips, we see Sancho with his ballot, proclaiming that in one hand he holds his young son’s hand, and in the other his son’s future. Sancho lived long enough to vote in the election of 1780, but he died soon after. Two years later, his collected letters were published as The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, and the book became a best seller. Sancho lived in a time when most white people believed that people of color were inferior and incapable of any real learning. His remarkable accomplishments helped prove that idea wrong, and spurred the British abolitionist movement, which culminated in the end of slavery in Britain by the early 1830’s.

Click here to listen to actor Paterson Joseph talk about who Sancho was.

Click here to listen to actor Paterson Joseph talk about the importance of Sancho.