Ignatius Sancho’s Shop

A surreal journey through the mind of an unconscious Ignatius Sancho, exploring the worries, fears and desires of the first black man in Britain to own property and vote. Inspired by Ignatius Sancho’s original letters, now housed in the British Library archive collections, and this post on the British Library’s Untold Lives blog: Black Georgians? An ‘Affrican’ in Georgian London.

Through my research I found that Sancho’s little shop in Mayfair attracted some of the top (often celebrity) artists, musicians, actors and politicians of the time, as well as the next generation of young people aspiring to be like their idols. They came to buy their tobacco, sugar, rum, and tea; slave products. Sancho could have refused to sell these goods on moral grounds, but they were the most popular and expensive products of the time; he would not have been able to make the money to keep his shop without them. I wanted to explore Sancho’s moral dilemma and guilt about selling slave goods, his love of his wife, his pride in his shop, his yearning to see Africa… but I wanted to do this in an original and unusual way, creating a surreal parable. A fairy-tale journey through which to explore his preoccupations. – Jamie Rhodes

Ignatius Sancho was a fascinating man who led a very unusual life. He is said to have been born on an Atlantic slave ship around 1729, and brought to England from the Spanish West Indies. From the age of two he grew up as a household servant in Greenwich, though this was still with the status of a slave by English law.

The Duke of Montagu took an interest in Sancho and paid for his education, and after the Duke’s death in 1749 his widow took him into her service as her butler, leaving him a small annuity which eventually enabled him to set up in business as a grocer in Mayfair, Westminster.

Sancho blazed a trail for black Africans in Britain. He was the first black man to vote in a British parliamentary election, the first to publish any critique of slavery and the slave trade and the first to be accepted into London literary society.

“I heard the glass shatter a mere millisecond before the pain flashed through my skull, and I felt myself falling backwards. Thoughts of Ann and our children upstairs fought to keep me upright, but did not have the strength in my gout-ridden body.
Back and back I fell until the ceiling of my shop was a white plaster sky a hundred miles above me. My two tall lamps reached upwards like great trees, and the display cabinets loomed like wooden cliff faces, each fruit fly a soaring bird. It seemed an age before I hit the cold stone floor. When the moment came, with a soft, inaudible pffft like a crushed sugar cube, the solid stone crumbled to fine grains underneath my great weight. I fell straight through it.” – Ignatius Sancho, Ignatius Sancho’s Shop