Tell Me More
By Graham Christian
Ignatius Sancho (1729–1780) must be one of the most remarkable figures in a remarkable epoch of British history, and it is fortunate for us that music and social dance figured so large in his varied life.
Born on a slave ship in 1729, he almost at once lost both his parents, his mother having died of illness and his father having committed suicide. As an infant, he was baptized by the bishop of Cartagena under the name of Ignatius, and at the age of two, he was given by his then-enslaver to three sisters living in Greenwich. There, their friend John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu (1690–1749), met him and encouraged his curiosity and his passion for reading, giving him presents of books and “recommend[ing] to his mistresses the duty of cultivating a genius of such apparent fertility.”
The sisters, on the contrary, deplored his efforts, threatening to return him to the rigors of plantation slavery. At length he ran away, fleeing to the house of his noble friends, and when the now-widowed Duchess discovered that Sancho intended to shoot himself rather than return to Greenwich, she took him into her service.
Upon her death two years later, he discovered that she had left him a small annuity. This seems to have tempted him to embark upon a life of adventure and dissipation in the established Georgian manner, gambling and whoring. Encouraged by his friend, the celebrated actor David Garrick (1717–1779), Sancho also tried the stage, acting the roles of Shakespeare’s Othello and Aphra Behn’s tragic hero Oroonoko in the play of that name, but a speech impediment dampened his prospects there. After he lost his clothes at the gaming-table, he returned to Montagu House in Blackheath, a chastened young man, to act as a servant there, first to the chaplain, and eventually as a valet to George Brudenell Montagu (1712–1790), the son-in-law of his late patron.
He met and married Anne Osborne, a highly intelligent woman of West Indian origin. They had six surviving children, and Sancho unashamedly adored and admired her: “She is the treasure of my soul,” as he wrote to one friend in 1770.
In 1774, as gout made his work at Montagu House more difficult, he opened a shop at 19 Charles Street in Westminster, selling, among other things, tea, sugar, rum, soap, snuff, and tobacco. By then, Sancho could already count among his friends not only Garrick, but the virtuoso violinist Felice Giardini (1716–1796), the sculptor Joseph Nollekens (1737–1823), and the painter Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788), who executed a sensitive painted sketch of him in 1768. Perhaps the most cherished and certainly the most celebrated of his friendships was that with the avant-garde writer and eccentric cleric Laurence Sterne (1713–1768), whose novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman furnished inspiration for a favorite modern English country dance and tune, “Shandy Hall,” Sancho having written to him in a burst of enthusiasm after reading a collection of Sterne’s sermons. The two men were as one in their abhorrence for racism and the slave trade: “'Tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavour to make 'em so,” as Sterne said; the two men exchanged several affectionate visits before Sterne’s death of consumption.
As an independent property owner, and a man, Sancho was entitled to vote, a right he exercised as the first known person of African descent to do so in Britain, in 1774 and 1780. He was well-known as a wit and aesthete. Nollekens’ biographer John T. Smith recalled having visited Sancho’s shop in Charles Street, where they “drank tea with Sancho and his black lady, who was seated, when we entered, in a corner of the shop, chopping sugar, surrounded by her little ‘Sanchonets’.” Sancho was the inspiration for a character in an anonymous abolitionist novel of 1790, The Memoirs and Opinions of Mr Blenfield, where, under the name of Shirna Cambo, he dispenses sage counsel on religion, literature, slavery, and moral duty along with the tobacco, and learnedly discusses the thought of Edmund Burke and Laurence Sterne (of course) at an oyster club.
In 1775, part of his correspondence with Sterne was published, and he became a famous man, such that when his friends and family published Sancho’s own letters in 1782, the collection became a bestseller, attracting an almost unheard-of 1,181 subscribers, including the Prime Minister, and going on to see a fifth edition by 1803. It is hard not to be charmed by this genial, gregarious, well-read, well-fed man (he laughingly referred to his “convexity of belly exceeding Falstaff,” a feature implied by Gainsborough’s portrait of him), but he has a special call upon the interest of historians as the first known composer of African descent to have music published—most of it for social dances of his own devising.
It is not clear exactly how Sancho acquired his very substantial proficiency in the creation and transcription of music, but at least four collections of music were printed in his lifetime. The first publication, Minuets, Cotillons & Country Dances for the Violin, Mandolin, German-Flute & Harpsichord, Composed by an African, was issued around 1767, and, typically for the time, included eight longways country dances, as well as six minuet tunes and nine cotillons, the cotillon then being quite a new dance form in England. It was dedicated to Henry, Duke of Buccleugh (1746–1812), who married George Montagu’s daughter Elizabeth in that year: The volume may have been intended as a wedding gift. Not long after, Sancho published six concert songs, some to verse written by his friend David Garrick, as well as a setting of Shakespeare’s “Take, oh take, those lips away.” A few years later, another collection appeared, this time dedicated to his patron’s short-lived son, John Montagu of Boughton (1735–1770): it included thirteen minuet tunes, one air, one gavotte, one hornpipe, and four country dance tunes with titles but lacking figures.
In time, the Thompson firm seems to have taken an interest in Sancho’s work; in 1778, they published Twelve Country Dances for the Year 1779, this set dedicated to “Miss North,” almost certainly Catherine Anne North (1760–1817), the Prime Minister’s eldest daughter, connected by a complex skein of marriages and alliances to Sancho’s friends the Brudenells and Montagus. Several of the tunes and dances were republished, some as early as the 1770s, by other music-publishing firms like Skillern, Preston, and Budd, giving evidence of Sancho’s skill with dance and dance music. Perhaps the most accomplished of Sancho’s musical works are the songs, graceful turns in the galant style; but all the tunes are pleasing, and several of the dances are worth reviving as simple triple minors.
The title of the very last dance and tune we know of from his hand, “Mungos Delight,” is evocative, to say the least. The character of Mungo was created by Isaac Bickerstaffe (1733–c.1808) for the libretto of the comic opera The Padlock, based on a concept by Cervantes. Mungo, a caricature of an avaricious, drunken servant speaking an approximation of West Indian dialect, was portrayed not by the then-young Sancho, as was once thought, but by Charles Dibdin (1745– 1814), the composer of the opera’s music, in one of the first recorded instances of theatrical blackface. As painful as the notion of blackface performance is to us now, Sancho evinced a lifelong gift for appropriating and re-purposing the stereotypes that the expanding British Empire occasioned. In the opera, Mungo says, “When my heart a sinking... / We dance and we sing, / Till we make a house ring,” but for this wit, friend, composer, and abolitionist., Mungo’s true delight could only be, like Sancho’s, freedom.