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The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho 

Paterson Joseph

Dialogue Books (2022)


Review by Sanjida O’Connell


Paterson Joseph said he wanted to write a story about a black David Copperfield, the eponymous character in Charles Dickens’ novel, which follows ‘Davy’ from birth to death. In his debut novel The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho, Joseph does exactly this, following the trajectory of the real life of the Black British man Charles Ignatius Sancho from his birth on a slave ship in 1729 to shortly before his death from gout, aged 51, in 1780. In between we have a rollicking rollercoaster of a story but as Joseph warns us right at the start: ‘This isn’t slavery porn – the insidious desire for violence to suffuse all stories involving Black protagonists. This is the tale of a lucky African orphan, who despite being born into abject slavery, rose to become a leading light of the early abolitionist movement.’

Sancho was an extraordinary man. He was a man of firsts: he published plays and booklets of his musical compositions at a time when it was illegal to teach the enslaved to read, he had letters published in the papers, he was the first black British man to vote and the first to be given an obituary in the British press. He met the King and played to Handel as a child; he was a butler and then a valet to the King’s friends. He was friends with leading luminaries of the age, including the playwright David Garrick, he corresponded with the celebrated author Laurence Stern and, perhaps most importantly, he married the love of his life and had seven children. Paterson has mined Sancho’s existing diaries and letters, published posthumously, recreating his voice pitch-perfectly. In the Afterword to the book, Joseph writes that he had but ‘bare facts offered by the threadbare archive’ and so has created by an act of ‘critical fabulation’, an imaginative tale based on the historical material. 

The story, like that of David Copperfield, is told chronologically but framed with notes from the older Sancho both describing and foreshadowing chapters and events as he pieces together an account of his life for his son Billy. There is no shortage of drama. Joseph has skilfully woven in real life events with (perhaps?) fictitious ones, such as his encounters with his nemesis, slave-catcher Jonathan Sill, and the chill callousness and brutality of the Three Sisters who raise him as if he were a trained animal from the age of three, and then, when he defies them by learning to read, who lock him in the cellar without food or water. Paterson has adroitly captured Sancho’s larger-than-life personality, his exuberance, his humour and his theatricality but this is underscored with a more nuanced empathy. Sancho is constantly told that despite his indentured servitude, the lack of love and the constant fear he experiences, he is lucky: he could have been enslaved on a sugar plantation. This gives him a deeply ingrained sense of worthlessness, in spite of his intelligence, education and many accomplishments; worse, he believes he cannot talk to other black people because: ‘my pampered cage-bird life was no match for even the mildest of their tales.’ As he grows older, he has moments of sorrowful self-awareness – his loneliness is palpable. He realises that because of his colour and his upbringing, there is no one else quite like him. 

The pace of The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho is, at times, uneven. There is a long section in the middle where Sancho and Anne Osborne, the woman he would later marry, correspond for five years. Anne is a free servant living on her master’s plantation in the Caribbean and, although lengthy, this part of the book allows Paterson to cleverly weave in the horrors of slavery which, whilst a stark contrast to Sancho’s life, also serve to highlight how extraordinary it was for him to have flourished. This was a time when, as Laurence Sterne wrote in a letter to Sancho, ‘it was ‘no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavour to make ’em so.’ The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho is, on the one hand, a wonderful work of historical fiction and, on the other, of profound importance as Joseph readdresses many of our cultural misperceptions regarding the lives of black people in Britain. 

Portrait of Sancho by Thomas Gainsborough, courtesy of National Gallery of Canada