Stephen Copley Research Report: Laura Blunsden on Ignatius Sancho

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Thanks to the support of the BARS Stephen Copley Research Award, I was able to visit the manuscript archives at the British Library in London this month to conduct my research into the personal life of Ignatius Sancho. 

My PhD thesis focuses on mentoring relationships in eighteenth-century literary culture. Unlike other, more formal kinds of educational relationships, mentorship involves reciprocal learning and mutual involvement; I suggest that mentoring facilitates a complex, non-linear version of personal development through sustained dialogue. Mentoring often takes place outside of an institutional structure, so my research often requires me to draw on letters and diary entries to explore the personal experiences of authors. 

In the second chapter of my thesis, I explore the mentoring relationship between the novelist Laurence Sterne and Ignatius Sancho, the abolitionist writer and composer. Sancho’s self-deprecating manner towards members of London’s cultural elite; his apologies for his ignorance as a ‘thick-lipped son of Afric!’; comparisons of his ‘poor black brethren’ to dogs; and complaints of ‘worse than Negro barbarity’, have led critics to condemn him as a ‘ludicrous, preening traitor to his race’.[1] His posthumously published Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African (1782) have been criticised as the most complete example of Black assimilation into white British nationalistic culture.[2] I argue that, in making such arguments, critics have misunderstood Sancho’s attempts to forge mentoring relationships with white patrons, who both accepted and disdained the advice offered by a poor, Black grocer. Further, I suggest that Sancho mentored several members of London’s cultural elite, including Sterne, to further his own abolitionist agenda. In my re-evaluation of Sancho’s role, I hope to acknowledge his intellectual, pedagogic and creative talents in a different way than has been offered by scholars of his work.

As this approach to Sancho’s Letters has not yet explored in great detail, many of the letters written by his friends and contemporaries regarding his private life and relationships remain unpublished. One letter, to the famous playwright Richard Cumberland from his brother George Cumberland, was of particular interest to me. The small amounts of George’s letter included in Vincent Carretta’s biography of Sancho[3] suggested that George was an aspiring author who became Sancho’s protégé and frequently bought household items from his grocery shop. As the letter was not quoted in full and has not yet been digitised, it was necessary for me to visit the British Library to read it in full to gain a better understanding of George and Sancho’s mentoring relationship.[4]

I was already attending a conference in Hampstead, but the Stephen Copley award enabled me to extend my stay in London by an extra day, which gave me time to read and transcribe all thirty-two of the Cumberland family letters. I found lots of evidence in the letters to support my argument that Sancho did provide essential critical advice to George. The letters made clear that their mentorship was founded on not just financial exchange but on a deeper emotional connection between the men.

The visit proved to be incredibly useful for my research, as I was finally able to access manuscript materials which would not have been otherwise available to me. My findings have deepened my understanding of not just Sancho’s mentoring relationship with George Cumberland, but also of mentorship more generally. I would like to express my gratitude to BARS and the Stephen Copley Research Bursary for their generous support of my research trip, and for providing me with this opportunity to work closely with such important manuscript sources. I strongly recommend anybody in need of support for upcoming conferences and research trips to apply. 

[1] S. S. Sandhu, ‘Ignatius Sancho and Laurence Sterne’, Research in African Literatures, 4: 29 (1998), 88-105 (p. 88).

[2] Norma Myers, Reconstructing The Black Past: Blacks in Britain 1780-1830 (London: Frank Cass, 1996), p. 133.

[3] Vincent Carretta, ‘Sancho, Ignatius (1729–1780), author’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) <>.

[4] London, British Library, Add MS 36491-36522, vol II, fol. 204