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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Ignatius Sancho

I mentioned Ignatius Sancho in passing in the previous post, but let's take a closer look at him. He was born on a slave ship in 1729. His mother died and his father killed himself because he did not want to be a slave. In 1731 he was given to three sisters in Greenwich, London as a present. As a young man his appetite for learning impressed the Duke of Montagu and in 1749 Sancho escaped from his owners and was employed as a butler by the Montagu family. In a letter Sancho compared the sisters with the Montagu family:

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.

When the Duchess of Montagu died he was left enough money to open a grocery shop in Westminster near the Houses of Parliament. Sancho met a lot of famous people including the painter Thomas Gainsborough, the politician Charles James Fox and the writer Laurence Sterne. He is remembered today as a composer and as the writer of a collection of letters published after his death. (Spartacus)

In 1780 Sancho witnessed the Gordon riots. (There is a more detailed account here.) These began as an anti-Catholic protest and quickly spun out of control. Large numbers of the very poor participated. Sancho wrote about the riots in a letter to his Suffolk friend John Spink. You can see the full text here. I am particularly struck by the following lines:

There is at this present moment at least a hundred thousand poor, miserable, ragged rabble, from twelve to sixty years of age, with blue cockades in their hats - besides half as many women and children - all parading the streets - the bridge - the park - ready for any and every mischief. - Gracious God! what's the matter now? I was obliged to leave off - the shouts of the mob - the horrid clashing of swords - and the clutter of a multitude in swiftest motion - drew me to the door - when every one in the street was employed in shutting up shop. - It is now just five o'clock - the ballad - singers are exhausting their musical talents - with the downfall of Popery, S[andwic]h, and N[ort]h.** $$ ^^
Sancho's eyewitness account really allows us to imagine what it was like to be in London at the time of the Gordon riots.

**Ballads are songs. From at least as early as the sixteenth century (I'd be surprised if it wasn't earlier) ballads were invented about the chief political events of the day. In this case the ballads called for the downfall of popery. Popery was another way of describing catholicism.

$$ Lord North was the prime minister.

^^ Yes, Lord Sandwich invented the sandwich.


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