Notable Black British lives in 18th and 19th century England


‘Sancho – An Act of Remembrance’ a one-man play written by Paterson Joseph, begins a short run later this week, first in Oxford and then Birmingham.

It celebrates the extraordinary 18th century life of Charles Ignatius Sancho (pictured above), the first British-African to vote in Britain, and the first to have an obituary in the British press when he died in December, 1780.

Sancho, recognised by the London elite as a fine composer, actor, social satirist and man of good taste, was immortalised in a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough. He was a lifelong friend of the actor and theatre manager David Garrick, and used his influence with writer Laurence Stern and politician Charles James Fox to push for the abolition of the slave trade.

Sancho was not alone in being a Black man of note in England during this time. Take, for example, Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George (1745–1799), a musician, athlete, and soldier. He came to England from France to increase his reputation as a leading composer and musician – he was known as the ‘Black Mozart’. Such was his talent as a violinist that some of Europe's top composers created violin works for Saint-George as the soloist, and he led the premieres of some of Haydn's greatest symphonies.

But Saint-George was known for much more than music. He was the premier fencer of his time, winning competitions here and in France. Subject to a great deal of racial jealousy, he survived two assassination attempts. In his later years he abandoned the aristocratic world of his upbringing to fight for revolutionary ideals, and he was an early supporter of racial equality in France and England. While living in France he became a colonel in the French army and defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Lille.

John Adams, the second president of the United States, met Saint-George when visiting France. He described him as “the most accomplished man in Europe, in riding, running, shooting, fencing, dancing, and music.”

The music of Saint-George (who shortened his name to George following the French revolution) would have been played by George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, a black child musical protégé born in Poland who came to England when he was 10 at the end of the 18th century. Bridgetower became a renowned violinist who so impressed Beethoven that he dedicated a violin piece to him. While Bridgetower, whose father (and manager) came from Barbados, was a very successful and popular musician in London in the early 19th century, he was one of many Black musicians playing in orchestras up and down the country.

Note must also be made of the contribution of Black military drummers in this era. Henry George Farmer, the historian of military music, wrote: 'It should not be forgotten that black drummers not only gave a tremendous fillip to regimental music, but it was their contribution in the so-called Turkish music that opened the eyes of the great composers, beginning with Mozart and Beethoven, to the possibilities of a new tone colour and fresh rhythmic devices in the wider realm of orchestral music.'

Now to Black businessmen in this period. Outside of London, we should praise the efforts of George Africanus in Nottingham who became a successful entrepreneur, founding the first employment agency for servants in the city in 1793. During this time in Kingston upon Thames, Cesar Picton, born in Senegal, was establishing his successful business as a coal merchant. He became very wealthy, probably the richest of the thousands of Black people in Britain at the time. His original premises at 52 High Street, Kingston, was renamed Picton House, such was his local repute.

Finally, mention of Pablo Fanque, owner of the most successful circus in Britain during the Victorian period. He was born William Darby in 1796 in Norwich where he became a brilliant stunt rider and tightrope walker. Fanque made a highly successful London debut in 1847. Describing Fanque and his performance, The Illustrated London News wrote: “Mr. Pablo Fanque is an artiste of colour …we have not only never seen surpassed, but never equalled ... Mr. Pablo Fanque was the hit of the evening. … that his horse attracted so much attention was testament to Fanque's extraordinary horse training skills.”

Sancho – An Act of Remembrance will be staged at Oxford Playhouse between September 17 - 19, 2015 (tickets 01865 305 305) before moving to Birmingham Repertory Theatre from September 22 to September 25 (tickets 0121 236 4455).

Paul Hensby