Ignatius Sancho: why a Google Doodle is celebrating the life of the British composer as Black History Month begins

As the UK’s Black History Month kicks off, Google honours a central figure in the abolition of slavery

Today's Google Doodle celebrates Ignatius Sancho, a British composer, actor and writer who became a symbol of hope in the battle against the immorality of the slave trade through his celebrated letters.

As October begins, so too does the UK’s Black History Month.

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Google's Doodle aims to honour Sancho - who was of African heritage - and draw attention to his work in the abolition of slavery, a "courageous fight in the name of freedom and equality."

(Image: Royal Albert Memorial Museum)
(Image: Royal Albert Memorial Museum)

Here's everything you need to know.

Who was Ignatius Sancho?

Sancho's was fraught with extraordinary hardship from the get-go.

Born on a slave ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean around 1729, his mother died not long after childbirth, and his father reportedly took his own life rather than live as a slave.

(Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But an early glimmer of hope came when Sancho was just two years old - his owner took the young orphan to England where he was given to three unmarried sisters in Greenwich.

His intelligence, warmth and sincerity meant he was encouraged to read, something which gave the young Sancho a somewhat informal education.

With learning came a frustration at his lack of freedom, and Sancho escaped and fled, finding employment as a butler for an aristocratic family.

There, his horizons were broadened even further, as Sancho immersed himself in music, poetry, reading, and writing. By the late 1760s, Sancho was considered by many to be a man of refinement.

What music did he compose?

During his life, Sancho published four books of songs and lively dance music, his most well known being a collection titled. Minuets, Cotillons & Country Dances.

He was the first composer of African descent to publish music in the European tradition, publishing his works anonymously but noting on the first page they were “Composed by an African”.

Academics have theorised Sancho may have included this information in an effort to make the music appear more ‘exotic’, and therefore increase sales.

But Sancho made it clear that he had noble English connections, dedicating his works to his aristocratic friends on numerous occasions.

What did he write in his letters?

After his correspondence between himself and Laurence Sterne - in which Sancho urged famous writer to to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade at the height of the debate - was published, he became known as a man of letters.

During a bout of gout in 1774, Sancho opened a greengrocery in London's Mayfair with his wife, Anne Osborne.

A more sedate lifestyle followed, one that allowed more time to socialise and write; during this time he wrote and published collections of his musical compositions and multiple plays.

Sancho wrote a large volume of letters, many of which contained criticism of 18th-century politics and society.

His eloquent calls for slavery's abolition were published in newspapers, exposing many readers to writing by a black person for the first time.

As a financially independent male homeowner, Sancho was also qualified to vote, and became the only Briton of African heritage known to have been eligible and voted in an 18th-century general election in 1774.

How did he die?

Sancho died from the effects of gout in December 1780 and was buried in the churchyard of St Margaret's, Westminster, where there remains no memorial.

He was the first person of African descent known to be given an obituary in the British press.

Sancho's influence continued to be felt after his death, and when a collection of his letters was published posthumously, Sancho's words garnered huge readership and brought widespread attention to the abolitionist cause.

Who created today's Doodle?

Today's Google Doodle was created by UK-based artist Kingsley Nebechi, who said focusing on Sancho provided "a great chance to explore a really crucial part of Black history."

"I wanted my artwork to pay homage to his contributions and become a tool to re-introduce his great work to a new generation."

Nebechi hopes the Doodle can spark "curiosity" in people so they can research Ignatius and other essential Black figures in history.

"It’s hard to know where you are headed if you don’t know where you’re from," he says.