Ignatius Sancho (c.1729–1780) was born on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic from Africa to the West Indies. He was baptized Ignatius by a bishop in Carthagena. His mother died of an unknown disease, and his father committed suicide rather than be enslaved. At the age of two, the boy was taken to Greenwich, near London, where he worked as a child slave. His owners, three sisters, named him “Sancho” after Don Quixote's companion. The three sisters treated Sancho badly, often threatening to return him to plantation slavery and refusing to educate him, thinking this to be the best way to keep him obedient. However, Sancho was befriended by the Duke of Montague, who recognized his quick wit and provided him with books to facilitate his education. When he was twenty, Sancho found life with the three sisters unbearable and persuaded the now-widowed Duchess of Montague to employ him. He worked for her as a butler and during this time wrote poetry, two stage plays and a Theory of Music dedicated to the Princess Royal. He was also a composer, with three collections of songs, minuets, and other pieces for violin, mandolin, flute and harpsichord all published anonymously. He was the first known Black Briton to vote in a British election, and the first person of African descent known to be given an obituary in the British press. Sancho's first public recognition came by way of his exchange of letters with Laurence Sterne, in which Sancho encouraged the novelist to use his pen to combat slavery. Sancho wrote:
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!
His many letters, compiled and published soon after his death, were a glimpse into the major political, economic and cultural issues of the late 18th-century British Empire. Writing his friend's son who had expressed racist attitudes after a visit to India, Sancho wrote:
I am sorry to observe that the practice of your country (which as a resident I love – and for its freedom – and for the many blessings I enjoy in it – shall ever have my warmest wishes, prayers and blessings); I say it is with reluctance, that I must observe your country's conduct has been uniformly wicked in the East – West-Indies – and even on the coast of Guinea. The grand object of English navigators – indeed of all Christian navigators – is money – money – money – for which I do not pretend to blame them – Commerce was meant by the goodness of the Deity to diffuse the various goods of the earth into every part—to unite mankind in the blessed chains of brotherly love – society – and mutual dependence: the enlightened Christian should diffuse the riches of the Gospel of peace – with the commodities of his respective land – Commerce attended with strict honesty – and with Religion for its companion – would be a blessing to every shore it touched at. In Africa, the poor wretched natives blessed with the most fertile and luxuriant soil- are rendered so much the more miserable for what Providence meant as a blessing: the Christians' abominable traffic for slaves and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the petty Kings encouraged by their Christian customers who carry them strong liquors to enflame their national madness – and powder – and bad fire-arms – to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.