On 21st July 1766, Charles Ignatius Sancho, writer, composer, and abolitionist, writes a letter to novelist Laurence Sterne. In the correspondence, he requests that Sterne acknowledge the devastation being inflicted on people forcibly taken and sold because of the transatlantic slave trade. Specifically, Sancho asks Sterne to earnestly ‘consider slavery – what it is – how bitter a draught – and how many millions are made to drink it!’ . He continues, stressing that ‘of all my favourite authors, not one has drawn a tear in favour of my miserable black brethren – excepting yourself, and the humane author Sir Charles Ellison’ .
A great deal has changed in England since the eighteenth century. Yet the silence Sancho notes around Black history, identity, power, and suffering has remained. Several historians, including Hakim Adi (Black and Caribbean People in Britain, 2022), Gretchen Gerzina (Black England: A Forgotten Georgian History, 2022), and David Olusoga (Black and British: A Forgotten History, 2021), have reintroduced Black voices from across time into the academic debate. However, the culture of silence and erasure surrounding Black history – which has long permeated British society – remains difficult to dispel. The consequences of this attitude, and the subsequent lack of historical and social visibility for Black Britons it has caused, have had a palpable effect. This is explored within Paterson Joseph’s stage show, Sancho & Me, which works closely with his recent debut novel, The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho (2022).
At this year’s annual BSECS conference, attendees were treated to a performance of the show. Joseph has toured both the UK and the USA with this show for several years, drawing upon the life of Sancho to comment upon the traumatic impact the historical and discursive erasure of Black-British identities has had on modern society. This iteration of the show was a special performance, for one night only, and included excerpts from newly published Paterson’s novel. It should be noted that due to the largely improvised nature of the show, each performance of Sancho & Me is unique and dynamic.
During the performance, Joseph discussed his childhood in North West London during the 1970s and the racist hostility and prejudice that he faced there. Referred to as ‘educationally subnormal’ at school, exposed regularly to racist abuse and graffiti sprawled across local buildings, and consistently confronted with questions regarding his origin – ‘Where are you from…No, where are you really from?’ – Joseph recalls being made to feel he had no claim or right to his own country or the British identity. This, sadly, is something which does not seem to have changed for many young Black Britons. When speaking to some of these young people over recent years, Joseph often asks them a question: ‘Who are you?’ The response is rarely ‘British’ and never ‘English’. Indeed, only when Joseph was introduced to Charles Ignatius Sancho in 1999 at the age of thirty-five, did he begin to see himself reflected in British history. Thus began a journey into the annals of history as Joseph sought to reignite the lanterns of a Black British, and Black English, history that has been violently snuffed out.
Joseph shifted fluidly, throughout the show, from anecdotes of his own life and into Sancho’s voice. Using his love and knowledge of history and his experiences as a Black British man, Joseph filled in some of the gaps in Sancho’s life, giving this celebrated eighteenth-century man of letters a new voice within the twenty-first century. With Thomas Gainsborough’s handsome portrait of Sancho behind him, Joseph’s powerful voice and command of stage and room alike brought Sancho alive to the audience. Accompanied by the talented Ben Park, who played a few of Sancho’s stunning compositions on the electric cello bass, Joseph glided across the allotted space of Maplethorpe Hall, captivating his listeners with excerpts from The Secret Diaries, allowing us all to imagine the life, pain, and victories of Sancho himself.
This is what makes Sancho & Me so effective: Joseph’s ability to tell a story. The performance was not a lecture but a tale that spanned hundreds of years, a narrative about finding yourself in a world that has not wished to see or acknowledge you. Joseph challenged the binaries and absolutes of history, reminding us that it is something ‘subtle and strange,’ less an ‘academic issue [but rather] something that connects us, [helping] us to see who and what we are.’
When Sancho asked Sterne to voice the plight of the victims of the slave trade, he also sought the discursive preservation of a history too often suppressed and discarded. More than two and a half centuries later, Joseph makes the same request to us: that we, as historians, acknowledge the suffering, victories, accomplishments, and indeed the presence, of Black Britons in history and their essential place within the collective story of the United Kingdom.
Sancho & Me reminds us of the power and security that knowing our history can provide us as individuals and as a nation. To be seen, acknowledged, and celebrated should be a right, but it has become a privilege many of us have taken for granted. As the excavators of the past, it is our responsibility to ensure no voice or identity is suppressed. The historian’s duty was perhaps best summarised by Joseph after the performance: ‘What [we] do as historians is not just facts; [it is] about real change in people’s lives.’ We, as eighteenth-century scholars, are fundamentally storytellers. Yet, how can we tell the story of the United Kingdom truthfully and authentically without hearing the voices willfully left behind?
Joseph explains his motivation at the beginning of The Secret Letters: ‘This book was written to tell Our Story. Yours and mine, whoever you are.’ Sancho & Me, of course, does the same. However, Joseph’s objective – to tell ‘Our Story’ wholly, thoroughly, and vibrantly –should be shared by us all.
 Charles Ignatius Sancho, Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African: To which are Prefixed Memoirs of His Life, Volumes 1-2 (London: J. Nichols and C. Dilly, 1783) letter XXXVI pp. 96-97.
 Ibid., p. 97.