Heard the one about the black guy born in the early 18th Century on a slave ship? He ended his days running a grocery store in Westminster. And that was after a career as a famous musician, composer, author and actor. Oh, and in 1774 he became the first Black Briton to vote? Never heard of him? Neither had I until I discovered Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of the extraordinary Charles Ignatius Sancho, in 2007 in a book by historian Gretchen Gerzina: Black England.
The most remarkable thing about this discovery is not that most people I knew hadn’t a clue about such an amazing pioneer of multi-ethnic Britain, but that I, a supposedly ‘conscious’ Black Briton, had no clue either. Truth is I had presumed that the presence of black people in Britain began in 1948 with the 249 passengers (and, famously, 1 stowaway), on board the ship, HMT Empire Windrush, when it docked at Tilbury from Montego Bay, Jamaica. Any previous dealings blacks had with the UK would have been remotely, surely; African slavery, Caribbean plantations, etc. Or so I thought. Discovering the rich and strange story of black people in Britain changed everything I thought about being Black and British.
I’m frequently asked how I came to write about Sancho; the answer, sadly, confirms the often self-absorbed nature of the actor’s Art. Further Confessions Of A Shallow Actor follow… I wanted to be in a costume drama. Yes, I like them. I enjoy the leap of imagination and the richer-than-modern-language they often contain. I wanted to wear a ruff, or an ornate waistcoat, even a foppish, stylish wig. But not as a tray-toting, background figure. I wanted to be a protagonist. It sometimes feels that I was born in the wrong time. For casting purposes, it seems I was born in the wrong skin! So, I thought I’d better find a route in for myself. Thus began my research period; hours and hours trawling the archives for a likely character I could get ‘someone’ to write about…and I could star as… In my defence, along the way to this rather venal goal, I was transformed by my three-fold discoveries about the man baptised by the Bishop of Cartagena, Columbia: Charles Ignatius.
Discovering the rich story of Black people in Britain changed everything I thought about being Black and British
Some of these stories are so domestic and modern they make me smile and shudder simultaneously. When Sancho’s rather sketchy biographer, Joseph Jekyll, wrote that Sancho could have made an actor if not for a speech impediment, it sounded like something my agent might say to me today after auditioning for the new Mr Darcy: “Great audition, they loved you…but they’re going another way…” The fact that Sancho’s black skin had no part to play in his stymied acting career seems pretty unlikely to me. But perhaps it truly was the only obstacle and that, in fact, there were, as in the courts of Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth I, black musicians and performers whose colour was of little or no consequence to the majority of Britons in their day.
What I thought about multi-ethnic Britain pre-Windrush and what I now know has, for me, changed forever the meaning of the words Black British. I now write them confidently but with awareness of their resonance on every form that begs the question: Who Do You Think You Are? I hope my play, Sancho, contributes a little to an understanding of our shared British history. Wherever we’re from.
17th July 2015
Paterson Joseph is a Royal Shakespearean actor, native of Great Britain, and star of the HBO series, “The Leftovers,” and many other film projects. His one-man show, SANCHO, is the story of Charles Ignatius Sancho, an African, born on a slave ship but never enslaved, the first Black Briton to cast a vote, a composer, author, and orator. Joseph is bringing SANCHO to Pittsburgh for a one-night special performance, Friday, December 11th at the August Wilson Center.
This essay first appeared in The Guardian in September 2015.