Allies against slavery: Ignatius Sancho and Laurence Sterne

January 6, 2019 0 Comments
Thomas Gainsborough, Ignatius Sancho (1768)

Ignatius Sancho was one of the most prominent black Britons of the eighteenth century – and without doubt the most multi-talented. 

Born in Africa, according to his own account (or on board ship, according to his biographer, Joseph Jekyll), he was shipped across the Atlantic to be a slave in the Spanish colony of New Granada.  After the illness and death of his mother and suicide of his father in Cartagena, Colombia he was taken to London, and from 1731 he worked for three sisters in Greenwich (it was they who called him Sancho, after Cervantes’ character).  A neighbour, John, 2nd Duke of Montagu, learned of his abilities and encouraged Ignatius to read and educate himself.  In 1749 he ran away to join the household of Montagu’s widow Mary and became an accomplished writer and composer.  Later he married and brought up seven children, and opened a shop in Mayfair.  He could name Thomas Gainsborough (who painted him in 1768), David Garrick, Charles James Fox and the sculptor Joseph Nollekens among his circle.

Ignatius Sancho can claim quite a few ‘firsts’.  He was the first black composer to have his works published in Britain (they included ‘minuets, cotillons and country dances’).  He was the first black man with the right to vote in a British general election.  He was the first black Briton to be a patron of white artists and writers, and the first to receive a published obituary.  He tried his hand at acting on the stage, he wrote a ‘theory of music’ (lost), three plays (also lost), and a series of letters, published in 1782, two years after his death, to various people, often on public issues.

One of the letters was one he sent in summer 1766 to Laurence Sterne.  Sterne was then at the height of his fame: he had published Books 7 and 8 of Tristram Shandy in 1765. The first two volumes of The Sermons of Mr Yorick (Sancho quotes from Sermon 10) had appeared earlier, in 1760; volumes 3 and 4 followed in 1766.

Reverend Sir,

It would be an insult on your humanity (or perhaps look like it) to apologize for the liberty I am taking.—I am one of those people whom the vulgar and illiberal call “Negurs.”—The first part of my life was rather unlucky, as I was placed in a family who judged ignorance the best and only security for obedience.—A little reading and writing I got by unwearied application.—The latter part of my life has been—thro’ God’s blessing, truly fortunate, having spent it in the service of one of the best families in the kingdom.—My chief pleasure has been books.—Philanthropy I adore.—How very much, good Sir, am I (amongst millions) indebted to you for the character of your amiable uncle Toby!—I declare, I would walk ten miles in the dog days, to shake hands with the honest corporal.—Your Sermons have touch’d me to the heart, and I hope have amended it, which brings me to the point.—In your tenth discourse, page seventy-eight, in the second volume [on ‘Job’s account of the shortness and troubles of life, considered’] —is this very affecting passage—”Consider how great a part of our species – in all ages down to this—have been trod under the feet of cruel and capricious tyrants, who would neither hear their cries, nor pity their distresses.—Consider slavery—what it is—how bitter a draught—and how many millions are made to drink it!”—Of all my favorite authors, not one has drawn a tear in favour of my miserable black brethren—excepting yourself, and the humane author of Sir George Ellison [Sarah Scott’s novel The history of Sir George Ellison was published in 1766].—I think you will forgive me;—I am sure you will applaud me for beseeching you to give one half hour’s attention to slavery, as it is at this day practised in our West Indies.—That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many—but if only of one—Gracious God! – what a feast to a benevolent heart!—and, sure I am, you are an epicurean in acts of charity.—You, who are universally read, and as universally admired—you could not fail—Dear Sir, think in me you behold the uplifted hands of thousands of my brother Moors.—Grief (you pathetically observe) is eloquent;—figure to yourself their attitudes; hear their supplicating addresses!—alas!—you cannot refuse.—Humanity must comply—in which hope I beg permission to subscribe myself,
Reverend, Sir, &c.

I. Sancho.

Sterne wrote back from Shandy Hall:

Coxwould near York July 27. 1766

There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl, and my eyes had scarse done smarting with it, when your Letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me—but why her brethren?—or yours, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face at St James’s, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ‘ere Mercy is to vanish with them?—but ’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. For my own part, I never look Westward (when I am in a pensive mood at least) but I think of the burdens which our Brothers & Sisters are there carrying—& could I ease their shoulders from one once of ’em, I declare I would set out this hour upon a pilgrimage to Mecca for their sakes—[which] by the by, Sancho, exceeds your Walk of ten miles, in about the same proportion, that a Visit of Humanity, should one, of mere form—however if you meant my Uncle Toby, more—he is [your] Debter.

If I can weave the Tale I have wrote into the Work I’m [about]—tis at the service of the afflicted—and a much greater matter; for in serious truth, it casts a sad Shade upon the World, That so great a part of it, are and have been so long bound in chains of darkness & in Chains of Misery; & I cannot but both respect and felicitate You, that by so much laudable diligence you have broke the one—& that by falling into the hands of so good and merciful a family, Providence has rescued You from the other.

And so, good hearted Sancho! adieu! & believe me, I will not forget [your] Letter. [Yours]

L. Sterne

Sure enough, in chapter 6 of the ninth and final volume of Tristram Shandy, published in 1767, we find this passage, where Corporal Trim is telling a story to Uncle Toby, the scarred war veteran who is yet incapable (literally) of harming a fly:

When Tom, an’ please your honour, 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.—’Tis a pretty picture! said my uncle Toby—she had suffered persecution, Trim, and had learnt mercy—

—She was good, an’ please your honour, from nature, as well as from hardships; and there are circumstances in the story of that poor friendless slut that would melt a heart of stone, said Trim; and some dismal winter’s evening, when your honour is in the humour, they shall be told you with the rest of Tom’s story, for it makes a part of it—

Then do not forget, Trim, said my uncle Toby.

A Negro has a soul? an’ please your honour, 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 honour, 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.

Trade card of Ignatius Sancho (reverse)

The first – the most surprising – thing to be said about this exchange is that Ignatius’s letter is amazingly Shandean in its style.  It’s as if his main method of winning Sterne over is by emulating his own way of writing.  (Even more surprising, Ignatius uses this same Sternian style in letters sent to other people).  S.S. Sandhu has drawn attention to the similarities between the two writers: the disdain for plain narrative, the discontinuous and digressive sentence flow, the inventive diction and fondness for puns, the dash-strewn and asterisk-pocked punctuation.  Sandhu stresses that this doesn’t make Sancho a ‘parrot’ or subservient imitator of dominant modes of writing.  On the contrary, he deliberately chooses the heterodox, transgressive style of Sterne as a way of showing he doesn’t feel he’s expected to toe the literary line.

Trade card of Ignatius Sancho

But Ignatius’s plea-through-imitation goes beyond style.  He adopts the same ‘appeal to sentiment’ that is such a central theme of the final part of Tristram Shandy and its successor, A sentimental journey.  It’s summed up by his phrases ‘Philanthropy I adore’ and ‘what a feast to a benevolent heart!’  Slavery is anathema to the ‘man of sentiment’, who takes pride in feeling compassion for all fellow-beings, and for whom there is no class of human more or less worthy of respect. 

Ignatius was clearly very familiar with Sterne’s writings and his ideas – so familiar that he could be certain that his appeal would be well received – even though public expression of hostility to slavery was largely confined to Quakers at this time.  For Sterne, in his turn, the theme of slavery was a natural one, and it’s no surprise that he was already on the point of ‘weaving the Tale’ into Tristram Shandy – though the views on slavery there are less trenchantly expressed than those in Sterne’s letter to Sancho, where he argues strongly for the unreality of racial distinctions.

Sterne valued Sancho’s friendship.  He kept Sancho’s letter and his reply in a special letter book, perhaps with a view to future publication.  He also continued the correspondence.  On 16 May 1767 he wrote asking Sancho to persuade the Montagus to become subscribers to his new book, A sentimental journey.  On 30 June 1767 he hopes Ignatius will ‘not forget [his] custom of giving me a call at my lodgings’. 

Ignatius in his turn valued the connection with Sterne, even after the latter’s death in March 1768.  He cherished his copy of Nollekens’ famous bust of Sterne.  It was Sterne’s appearance in his posthumous published letters that in part accounted for their popularity (though they were also notable for their relaxed style and their value as documents – Sancho reports as an eye-witness at the anti-Catholic Gordon riots in 1780).  The letters were published in order to prove ‘that an untutored African may possess abilities equal to an European’. Over 2,000 people subscribed to the two volumes when they appeared in 1792, and Sancho’s widow received £500 in royalties.  Four further editions appeared before 1803.

Sterne returned to the subject of slavery in the Paris section of A sentimental journey, where Yorick is diverted by a starling in a cage, who voices the words, ‘I can’t get out – I can’t get out’:

Disguise thyself as though wilt, still slavery! said I – still thou art a bitter draught; and though thousands in all ages have been made to drink of thee, though art no less bitter on that account …

The mention of ‘a bitter draught’ is a direct reference to the phrase in Sterne’s Job sermon of 1760.  It’s a phrase that resonated down the decades, and was particularly common in American newspaper writings about slavery.  Later abolitionist works, like William Dickson’s Letters on slavery (1797) and Thomas Clarkson’s History of the abolition of the slave-trade (1808), were eager to cite the episode as evidence of the mounting strength of feeling against the slave trade, then at its height, in the 1760s. Clarkson wrote

Sterne, in his account of the Negro girl in his Life of Tristram Shandy, took decidedly the part of the oppressed Africans. The pathetic, witty and sentimental manner, in which he handled this subject, occasioned many to remember it, and procured a certain portion of feeling in their favour.

Joseph Wright of Derby, The Captive

Thomas Keymer tries to argue that Sterne’s opposition to slavery is no more than one aspect of his literary personae, and that Yorick’s failure to move beyond generic ‘sentimental’ compassion to document the horrors of slavery in vivid detail, as if he were George Orwell, reflects Sterne’s intention to make fun of the ‘man of sentiment’.  It’s true that one of Sterne’s intentions in A sentimental journey is to parody, but I’m not sure that means that he’s not entirely sincere in seeing the worth of ‘sentiment’ in human affairs.  It seems to me you have to take Sterne as a whole – scatology, religiosity, satire, sensibility and the rest – and avoid the temptation to follow Victorian moralists in condemning some of his features and elevating others.  There’s no reason to doubt that he took a strong, principled stand on the slave trade, before the abolitionist movement was fully under way – a stand that proved to have a wide influence after his death.

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