Ignatius Sancho: UK's First Black voter activist


“And so, with my Precious Billy in one hand and his future in the other,-the right to vote- I raise my arm to heaven and declare: ‘I vote for the Anti-Slavery candidate. I vote for Charles James Fox. I vote … for Freedom!’

This is the most powerful scene from an extraordinary one man play; ‘Sancho - An act of remembrance’ written and performed by Paterson Joseph.

What adds to the shear drama of the play is where it’s performed, which is the recently renovated old Victorian music hall, Wilton Music Hall in Aldgate East.

The play, and where it's shown adds to the intensity and drama of a Black man’s challenge in the middle of 1700's  to be really free, nearly 100 years before the slave trade was abolished : First, from the shackles of slavery; then from being the cute exotic black boy, that the rich would parade, much like the rich and famous do today with their must have little pampered dogs; to perhaps his final big  challenge, being afforded the right to vote, and vote against the slave trade.

The accomplished actor Paterson Joseph fills the stage with laughter, sadness and great political and cultural insight. He tells the story of this most celebrated African, born and orphaned on slave ship only to find comfort being taken in as an exotic oddity by a number of wealthy English families. But it was his relationship with the then  Duke of Montegu, where Sancho’s intellect and gift for the arts were allowed to flourish.

So impressive and respected was Sancho- an African baby born into slavery,but freed as a child who went on to become a writer and property owner, - that he was painted by the one of the most celebrated painters of his generation, Thomas Gainsborough.

In his play Joseph weaves a captivating tale of the highs and the very lows of his life, which all lead, in many ways to this one monumental moment that not only affords him the right to vote, important as that is, but the right to vote to end slavery and give freedom to all Africans.

Too many Ignatius Sancho is pretty much an unknown figure, but he shouldn’t be, on the contrary. Joseph makes a valient attempt to put this right with an absorbing play which is, first and foremost, entertaining, but the story and the performance to way beyond entertainment.

Joseph's play demands to put Ignatius Sancho historically where he truly belongs, which is in the pantheon of great Africans who lived in the UK, including his contemporary Olaudah Equiano, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Marcus Garvey and more recently Bernie Grant.

We salute you Sancho, and you too Paterson Joseph.

Simon Woolley

The play is on at Wilton’s Music Hall Algate East until 16th June.