Author's note: Paterson Joseph
In the late Seventies my generation of young black peers grew up with the notion that we were the first manifestation of black British youth that had ever been seen on these islands. The majority of our parents, most of whom had arrived in the UK from Africa and the Caribbean islands in the Fifties and Sixties, knew no different it seemed. We were to a great extent a people without a British history. Then came the American television show, Roots. Alex Haley’s moving dramatisation of his ancestor Kunte Kinte’s journey from Africa to America via the slave trade stunned us all. Suddenly for us young black Britons the veil of history had been lifted. But whose history?
The African-American story is one most of us are now familiar with. Young black Britons’ identification with the movers and shapers of that history, from Frederick Douglass via Martin Luther King to Barack Obama, has been well documented. Much of the music created by black British youth has clearly imbibed all the influences of African-American culture; we think of jazz and later hip-hop and R and B. Our ways of dressing, and even idiosyncratic modes of speech, have been adopted and assimilated from that vibrant and powerful African- American culture.
My slight worry with this phenomenon has always been one of personal identity. We may want to absorb the history of another but in the end we may find that we can only really stand firm on our own story.
What makes Charles Ignatius Sancho a forerunner for the black British experience is his very un-American take on life as a black man among whites, and his unique place in British society. A less angry voice crying out against slavery than, say, Frederick Douglass, Sancho epitomises the very British love of argument and rhetoric, mixed with large doses of wicked humour. Together with his ability to love life and drink its cup to the dregs, he has an historian’s eye on the ‘weather’ of racial politics. He noted when it was time to challenge and time to play music; he refused to be told to sit down and be quiet and chose instead to write, sing, dance and, indeed, act. In his widely read letters, Sancho’s satirical and biting take on the social mores of his age, its political hypocrisy and downright cruelty, set him apart from the slave-narrative form adopted by his African-American counterparts.
And this is the nub of the matter; for however much you try and make the African-American history a facsimile of the Afro-British journey you run into the problem of detail. Sancho may not have even been formerly a slave; his owner/guardian sent him to live in relative luxury in Greenwich rather than subject him to the vicissitudes of a life on a plantation; his assimilation into ‘polite’ society was so deep that his portrait was painted by the foremost portraitist in English history. Thomas Gainsborough’s depiction of Sancho, not as slave, nor even servant, but in the typical pose of Gentleman, is almost shocking in its dignity and warmth.
Charles Ignatius is quite simply a perfect example, and by no means the only one in British history, of the strange, sometimes uncomfortable relationship that the UK has always had with its colonies and colonial peoples. On the one hand exploitation was rife and unbridled, and on the other, the natural and common humanity of the British would not allow them to fully embrace the horrors of the American model of slavery, at least on British soil. And so Sancho’s life was filled with the joy and pain of being at once free and simultaneously caged within his race and place in eighteenth-century society.
My interest in Sancho began on opening a page of a book entitled Black England by Gretchen Gerzina. I had been searching for a black British history so that I could perhaps write a film script that would reflect a longer history than had been available to the wider public up till then. In Gerzina’s book I read many a curious story. There was a tale from ancient Britain about the black soldier reported to have been on Hadrian’s Wall screaming defiance at the besiegers. There were ribald tales of Julius Soubise, young black Casanova of the eighteenth century. The tale of Queen Elizabeth the First’s decree that there were too many blacks on London’s seventeenth-century streets, and so a boat should be chartered to take them all back to Africa...no one turned up. These all tickled me greatly and gave me a real sense of the historical presence of black people in the UK that I’d never had before. However, it was on turning over a page and reading the domestic, personal and downright comic tale of Charles Ignatius Sancho that I knew I’d found my subject. He struck me as a true British model of survival without overt heroism, and indefatigability without bitterness. A true Afro-Brit some two hundred and twenty years before The Empire Windrush set sail for Britain.
But my real starting point was, of course, seeing his portrait for the first time. I found that though his letters tell us, albeit guardedly, much about his character, for me his portrait revealed almost all. His poise, humour, curiosity and deep intelligence shine through. His self- awareness is evident, too, but one feels he was not cowed by the knowledge of his ‘place’ in society. In other words, Charles Ignatius Sancho is a hero to all black Britons who aspire to be a functioning and integral part of the country of their birth, the country of their adoption. And for all of us, of whatever shade, he shows the way to count our circumstances as given, but not the final word on our destiny.