Image: ‘Portrait of Sancho’ by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1768
Who was Ignatius Sancho?
As this first blog post coincides with Black History Month I want to take the opportunity to explore the important and long lasting impact that the Black community have had and continue to have, on dance and the arts in general. To do this, I’m going to examine the life of a fascinating individual with huge influence on 18th century music and dance…
Sancho (1729-1780), was a charismatic and educated writer, actor, composer, and dance maker! His dance works are perhaps lesser known than the other areas of his life so let’s go deeper into this side of his story…
Sancho wrote that he was born in Africa but was captured and enslaved in Greenwich UK throughout his entire childhood. When he was 20 years old he liberated himself and escaped to Montagu House, Blackheath. He had met the late Duke of Montagu previously, who had lent Sancho books from his library, and he now persuaded the Duke’s widow, Lady Montagu, to employ him as a butler, a position he held until her death in 1751, after which he became valet to the next Duke of Montagu until 1773.
Sancho spent his time at the house educating and immersing himself in literature, music and poetry. During this time he also married Anne Osborne, a West Indian woman with whom he became a devoted husband and father to their seven children. By the late 1760s Sancho had earned a reputation for his accomplishments and wrote hundreds of letters to his correspondences detailing his observations on British life and urging them to fight for the abolition of slavery. 160 of these letters were published posthumously as The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, a two volume book which provides an illuminating insight into his life and opinions.
When he opened his own grocery shop in 1774, Sancho was already a well-known cultural figure. This new arrangement gave him more time to socialise and enjoy literature, and, as he now owned property, he was the first Black person to vote in a British election.
Sancho was a talented musical composer and choreographed dances to accompany his work. These took the form of cotillions, minuets, and country dances which were popular styles which pre-date ballet as we know it today by 200 years!
There are currently records of 24 of his dances in public collections, some of which are still reproduced today, thanks to Sancho’s decision to make detailed notes on every step. Historians think there may be even more records of early dances by him, that may currently be undiscovered in large archives or private collections.
We have Sancho to thank for forming a very important part of our British cultural heritage, from his writing, to his music, to his dance pieces. By looking at biographies like his, we can better appreciate how the influence of Black artists has shaped our history, not just for decades but for hundreds of years.
This Black History Month and beyond, allies must take meaningful and long lasting action to ensure that Black artists and the Black community are acknowledged, respected, and do not face prejudice. As a result, British Arts can thrive and adapt to changing times, reflecting the vast range of identities of the people who make and experience it, and we’ll be another step towards a more compassionate and inclusive world.
To get a taste of Sancho’s music and choreography, you can watch The Duke of Wellington’s Dancers, a Georgian and Regency reenactment group, performing one of his works here:
If you’d like to experience some of the fantastic cultural events being made and performed by Black artists, the Black History Month website has a page where you can search for performances, exhibitions and experiences close to you. Take a look and see what you can go and enjoy!