The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph

This is one of the those occasions when I buy a book in hardback. Why? Well, two reasons:

  1. The fantastically over-the-top cover design.
  2. It’s one of the books I’d like folk to see on the shelf, or on the coffee table, or in the office, or on the passenger seat of the car.

I’m not sure where this book fits in the genre list; it’s based on the diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho, an ex-slave who, through his own ingenuity, and I will concede, the kindness of others, escaped his destiny of life-long, unrewarded servitude, to become a noted musician, writer and abolishonist in eighteenth century England.

Paterson Joseph

Interestingly enough, the book was written by Paterson Joseph, an English actor who’s cropped in just about everything over the past twenty years or so. He started out in Peep Show, if I remember rightly, and since then he’s performed on stage as well as TV, and has also found the time to knock out a book or two.

The life of Charles Ignatius Sancho is obviously a passion of his, because he’s also behind a stage play about the same character.

Back to the book. Since it’s based on the diaries of a genuinely historical figure, then I’m going to put in the creative non-fiction bracket. Thinking about it, I think we can go a little further and pidgeon-hole it further into that miniscule section of the book market entitled Literary Creative-Non-Fiction of Outstanding Calibre.

Yup, it’s that good.

The writer notes that this is based on the diaries of main character, and as such, he’s embellished in places, though the story still carries the authentic thread of Sancho’s life.

And what a life it was …

Sancho was born on a slave ship bound for New Granada. His mother died in childbirth, and his father killed himself as soon as the ship docked. The infant Sancho grew to boyhood on a plantation, before being dispatched to live with the plantation owner’s sisters in London, England.

And this is where Sancho grows up; as a sort of ornamental doll for the sisters, who have him dress up and perform for their guests, who marvel at how clever he is for a son of the dark races.

The book presents a strange dichotomy for someone like Sancho; enjoying a certain level of safety and comfort under the ‘care’ of the sisters, but still very much a slave. He finds patronage in the form of a wealthy aristocrat who he meets by chance, and who takes an interest in his education. The young man thrives, discovering more about origins and the plight of the Africans in books in the duke’s library. He has the opportunity to learn music and meet black scholars who further awaken his own yearning for true freedom.

But escaping from the sisters’ house leaves him vulnerable to the slave catchers who roam the streets of London. Sancho has to stay a step ahead of them while fighing for a place in a black-hostile London for himself and his new family. …

This is an extraordinary book. It combines fictional/non-fictional diary entries with a sweeping eighteenth century prose that doesn’t miss a beat throughout the whole piece. The dialogue is authentic and punchy, never falling out of character or place. The scene-setting is top-notch, giving a real sense of privilege and the plight of slaves (and poor white Londoners) meshed together in a world that seeing the rise of abolishnists amongst the free blacks of London.

Charles Ignatius Sancho
Charles Ignatius Sancho

Charles himself comes across as, by his own admission, someone who has not really understood that he was a slave until he tried to leave. He doesn’t really fit anywhere, and he plays on a certain modesty and self-effacement to find a few scraps of success. He lacks the hardened nature of a plantation slave, so in ability to cope with the outside world means he often falls prey to situations that require the generosity of blacks and whites to get him back on his feet. He cuts quite a character: well-dressed, educated and oveweight – and that must’ve been rare for black people of the time.

Again, the wealth of characters (some historical, some fictional) brings the eighteenth century life, seen mainly through the eyes of one individual, and as such it doesn’t explore the notion of slavery other than how it affects Sancho, and this deeply personal look really works in bringing the whole injustice of it home.

And there are contraversial moments: Paterson doesn’t shy away from the fact that Africans themselves were involved in selling slaves to Europeans to ship to the Carribbean and the Americas.

Wait, what? …

Yes, it’s true, but the same point was made here that was made in the Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, and in the excellent TV series Enslaved, slavery wasn’t a question of race: it was about paying debts and dispatching your tribal enemies, so skin colour didn’t come into it.

Yup, still wrong on every level, but in a different way than claiming that slavery was okay because God said that’s what the darker races were for.

Indeed, when many tribal leaders discovered how slaves were treated when they left the continent, they attemped to resist the European invaders and … well, we all know how that went.

Okay, I’ve strayed from the point, so again, back to the book. It’s a diary, an adventure and a history lesson all rolled into one. Excellently researched, written and edited, so definitely my read of the year so far.

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