At a time when Black Lives Matter is sweeping the world, it is instructive to look back over 250 years at two black men who really mattered in a way that is so relevant today.  Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780) and Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) - both sometime parishioners of St Margaret’s Church next to Westminster Abbey on Thorney Island, emerged from a background of slavery to achieve big literary success while also being active in the anti-slavery movement, though Sancho's involvement was quieter than Equiano's.  At a time of widespread illiteracy in England, they educated themselves to produce beautifully written best selling books which were subscribed to by a roll-call of the aristocracy, including the Royal family and in Sancho’s case the Prime Minister (Lord North) too. For working class white people to have achieved such success would have been remarkable at the time. For it to happen to two men who had emerged from slavery is astonishing. At the time they were hailed as examples of what black people could do if given the chance - A lesson that still hasn’t been learned today.

 

Sancho had a wide range of influential friends including Charles Fox the radical Whig MP, David Garrick the celebrated actor and Laurence Sterne, author of one of the most influential novels of the time and Tristram Shandy whom he urged to join the battle against slavery. They, and many others, came to visit Sancho at his grocery shop in King Charles Street off Whitehall which he had purchased with the help of the enlightened Duke of Montagu’s family.  He thus fulfilled the property qualification necessary for voting and became the first black person in England to vote.  He also had his portrait painted by Gainsborough, wrote music (which can be savoured on YouTube), poetry and plays. Sancho was married at St Margaret’s where his children were baptised.

 

 

Paterson Joseph whose distinguished career includes roles from the National Theatre to the recent hit Noughts & Crosses, not to mention Scrooge in the Old Vic’s A Christmas Carol last year, also performs in a play he has written about the life of Sancho which was rapturously received at the Wilton Music Hall in 2018.

 

Equiano’s story “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”, is a riveting account of being kidnapped with his sister from his own home by African traders (in today’s Ghana) and sold to numerous white owners of slave ships, which he was forced to work on, including a voyage in search of the Northwest Passage.  He finally purchased his freedom and settled in London to become a leading advocate of the anti-slavery movement.  One of his biggest surprises on coming to London was to find this country didn’t trade in people (internally, that is), a practice he was so used to in Africa. He became a devout Christian and was baptised in St Margaret’s Church and later attended the Westminster Chapel (presumably Christchurch Chapel, an outpost of St Margaret’s off Victoria Street where Sancho is buried with his wife Ann, whose business acumen helped with the posthumous publication of his letters). 

 

Equiano has a plaque on the wall inside St Margaret’s and a brief history of Sancho will be on the information boards when Westminster Council has finished the current redevelopment of Christchurch Gardens. However, efforts to persuade the Council to name the new short street (going through the massive complex of 20-storey residential and office blocks opposite Christchurch Gardens) Ignatius Sancho Place or just Sancho Place has so far proved fruitless. It is to be called Orchard Place which is bizarre as there is already an Abbey Orchard Street - a more relevant reference to the original monks’ orchard which was situated there - on the other side of Victoria Street.  Sancho and Equiano would not have been surprised. 

 

The Society held a talk on Ignatius Sancho in February in our Archives   CLICK HERE  to read further.

 

 Two Africans who escaped slave backgrounds to become role models in England over 250 years ago