Imagine the scene. It is Westminster – the ancient village at the heart of what is now central London. I’ve often wandered, sometimes hob- bled, these streets in the uncomfortable pencil skirts and impractical heels that are the non-negotiable female uniform of my trade, in breaks snatched from the aggressive appetite of a rolling newsroom. West- minster is now a sterile mix of government buildings, but in the eighteenth century it was home to a notoriously poor neighbourhood, so deprived it’s where the word ‘slum’ was invented.
As is often the case, this impoverished underworld was also the birthplace of one of the great social movements of British history. In the 1770s, a talented black man – born a slave, mid-Atlantic, on a ship – whose friends included the artist Thomas Gainsborough, the writer Samuel Johnson, and the Duke and Duchess of Montagu, set up a gro- cery store on King Charles Street. Ignatius Sancho’s impressive address book didn’t shield him from the worst that fellow Londoners had to offer. They frequently vented ‘their prejudices against his ebon complexion, his African features, and his corpulent person’. But his talents did enrich his ability to defend himself. In one incident, a pair of passers-by, identifiable by their attire as ‘a young Fashionable and his friend’, said loudly, and rudely, as they encountered Sancho, ‘Smoke Othello!’ In response, a friend recalled, Sancho blocked the young Fashionables’ path and ‘exclaimed with a thundering voice, and a countenance which awed the delinquent, “Aye, Sir, such Othellos you meet with but once in a century,” clapping his hand upon his goodly round paunch. “Such Iagos as you, we meet in every dirty passage. Proceed, Sir!” ’
Sancho’s grocery opened with a push of a wicket door, and a little tinkling bell – a scene still familiar in so many independent and quirky retailers today. A customer walking in would have found a black couple – Sancho and his wife Anne, who came from the Caribbean – sitting in the corner, with some of their six children, Sancho writing or stocktaking perhaps, while Anne would chop sugar. As a grocer, Sancho relied on products from the West Indies like sugar and rum, which has led some to discount his role as an abolitionist. But here was the first African writer whose prose was published in English, and who used his influential letters to assert a black British identity in writing. Like so many people with dual identities – Sancho was after all born to an enslaved African mother – Sancho commanded his mixed heritage expertly, to strategically position himself in an argument. When, in his letters, he needed to criticise African complicity in the slave trade, Sancho was not ‘an African’ but British, or ‘a resident’ of Britain. But when he wanted to insert himself in the thorny question of the American war of independence, he was anything but. Then he became an outside observer, deploying the signature ‘Africanus’, to distance himself from a British identity and sidestep accusations of partisanship. Confronted with a racist Londoner in an alley, he was ‘an Othello’ – the embodiment in the white imagination of a black man. To have mixed African, Caribbean and British heritage in eighteenth- century Britain was to be in a precarious predicament – but that didn’t mean it was without its opportunities, for a man sufficiently intellec- tually skilled to use it to his advantage.