Paterson Joseph on Sancho: the first black Briton to vote

I’ve always wanted to be in a costume drama but not as a background figure. So the life of Charles Ignatius Sancho was an extraordinary discovery for me – as both an actor and a black Briton

Heard the one about the black guy born on a slave ship in the early 18th century? He ended his days running a grocery store in Westminster. That was after a career as a famous musician, composer, author and actor. And in 1774 he became the first black Briton to vote. Never heard of him? Neither had I, until I discovered Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of the extraordinary Charles Ignatius Sancho, in 2007, in a book by historian Gretchen Gerzina called Black England.

The remarkable thing about this discovery is not that most people hadn’t a clue about such an amazing pioneer of multi-ethnic Britain, but that I, a black Briton, had no clue either. Truth is, I had presumed that the presence of black people in Britain began in 1948 with the 492 passengers (plus a stowaway), on board the ship HMT Empire Windrush when it docked at Tilbury from Montego Bay, Jamaica. Any previous dealings black people had had with the UK would have been remote, I imagined: African slavery, Caribbean plantations, etc. But was that right?

I’m frequently asked how I came to write about Sancho; the answer, sadly, confirms the well-known, self-absorbed nature of the actor’s art. I wanted to be in a costume drama. Yes, I like them. I enjoy the leap of imagination and the richer-than-modern-language they often contain. I wanted to wear a ruff, or an ornate waistcoat, even a foppish, stylish wig. But not as a tray-toting, background figure. I wanted to be a protagonist.

It sometimes feels that I was born in the wrong time. For casting purposes, it seems I was born in the wrong skin. So, I thought I’d better find a route in for myself. Thus began my research period: hours and hours trawling the archives for a likely character I could get “someone” to write about … and I could star as. In my defence, along the way to this rather venal goal, I was transformed by three discoveries about the man baptised Charles Ignatius by the bishop of Cartagena, Colombia.

First, Sancho’s life was no Roots, nor was it 12 Years a Slave. His journey was odder, more quirkily eccentric and subtle than the American models of slave life I’d been used to seeing and reading about. Second, Sancho was a victim of the British gentry’s love of exotica. He was black, smart, humorous; he appealed to those who knew that Africans were not merely the “beasts of burden” that the slave traders portrayed them as. Third, he was an entertainer in a time of supreme entertainers; his best friends were the satirical, shaggy-dog-tale author Laurence Sterne; and the greatest actor of the 18th century, David Garrick.

My final, pleasant shock of enlightenment was reading about the “black frolics” and dances organised by the countless black servants, freemen and sailors all over London’s parks. A community of souls who all knew the dangers for Africans in the world beyond the UK, they trod a careful path to maintain both their freedom and that of their, often white, spouses and mixed-heritage children.

Some of the stories I’ve come across are so domestic and modern they make me smile and shudder simultaneously. When his rather vague and, frankly, racist biographer Joseph Jekyll wrote that Sancho could have made an actor if not for a speech impediment, it sounds like something an agent might say to a black actor today after they’d auditioned for the new Mr Darcy: “Great audition, they loved you … but they’re going another way …” The fact that Sancho’s black skin had no part to play in his stymied acting career seems pretty unlikely to me. But perhaps it truly was the only obstacle and that, in fact, there were, as in the courts of Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I, black musicians and performers whose colour was of little or no consequence to the majority of Britons in their day.

Through these years of research, my ideas of British life and black contributions to it have been revolutionised. What I thought about multi-ethnic Britain pre-Windrush and what I now know has, for me, changed for ever the meaning of the words black British. I now write them confidently, but with awareness of their resonance on every form that raises the question: Who Do You Think You Are?

I hope my play, Sancho, will contribute a little to an understanding of our shared British history, whoever we are.

  • Paterson Joseph appears in Sancho: An Act of Remembrance at Wilton’s Music Hall, London, 4-16 June. This article was first published on 14 September 2015.


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