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Letters of Ignatius Sancho offer window to life of black man in 18th-century London

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(AP Photo/National Portrait Gallery)

On Aug. 7, 1768, Mr. M had a headache. Luckily, his friend Ignatius Sancho offered up a cure. “The best recipe for your aching head (if not the only thing which will relieve you),” the Englishman wrote in a letter, “is cutting off your hair.” 

Of all the known recipients of Mr. Sancho’s letters, Mr. M was one of the most prevalent. In a letter sent a month after the headache cure, Sancho thanked Mr. M for the gift of a pig. In another, he begs him for gossip: “What sketches have you taken?—What books have you read?—What lasses gallanted?” In a letter dating Aug. 12, 1776, Sancho apologizes for not writing sooner; on Feb. 9, 1777, he complains that Mr. M hasn’t written.

Such is the portrait Sancho paints of his own rich life as a Black man living in 18th-century England. Over the course of 150 letters to Mr. M and many others, Sancho depicts himself not as the character in a stereotypical Black narrative of the time, but rather as an avid letter writer who rubbed elbows with the upper echelons of British society. His letters chronicle his friendships, his sense of humor, his travels and his everyday existence. And now, thanks to a research project at Northeastern University – London that maps his writing in the United Kingdom and beyond, his letters have been rediscovered in a new light, potentially changing the way we think about the Black experience under the British crown.

Continue reading at News@Northeastern.

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