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By Frances Sands, Curator of Drawings and Books

Like the majority of his contemporaries who were financially able, Sir John Soane bought sugar and tea from the grocery store. The Soane family also purchased cotton clothing and household linen. And mahogany is used throughout the house. The acquisition of these materials illustrates the uncomfortable fact that Soane’s household and his business regularly purchased items which had probably been produced or processed by enslaved people across the Atlantic Ocean. And yet, he is widely thought to have been pro-emancipation, and there are certainly no works within his library which advocated the trade in enslaved people. It is unlikely that Soane was ignorant of the origins of these items, however, one must note the ready availability of these items on the London market, and the sad fact that their purchase was a regular and normal occurrence among Soane’s contemporaries. Even the admirable William Wilberforce opposed the idea of boycotting sugar, and felt that Abolition was principally a political concern.

Soane’s strongest pro-emancipation statement within his museum – albeit potentially the most misunderstood – is a set of grotesque slave shackles. Their provenance is unknown, but Soane knew exactly what they were and he certainly disapproved of their use on fellow human beings. We know this, because he described the shackles in his guidebook to the museum: Description of the house and museum… (1835) as ‘implements of iron, to the honour of humanity no longer in use’. 

Further to this, there are various examples of pro-emancipation literature preserved within Soane’s library. None were annotated by Soane, so we cannot fully gauge his response to each publication, but their presence is surely telling, as Soane went to the trouble of purchasing and preserving them. The first is possibly the most significant for literary historians. It is entitled, Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African… and was published in 1782. There are two copies in Soane’s collection: the first edition of 1782 and the fifth edition of 1803.

Frances Crewe (ed.), Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho…, 1st edition, 1782, title plate: engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi after Thomas Gainsborough, portrait of Ignatius Sancho. SM 4597.

Ignatius Sancho (c.1729-80) was a gifted author, composer and shopkeeper. He had been born on the horrific ‘Middle Passage’ en route to the West Indies, after his African parents had been forcibly transported. His mother named him Ignatius but died on arrival in Granada, and his father committed suicide rather than continue living enslaved. Aged 2, Sancho was taken by his ‘owner’ to England and given to three spinster sisters in Greenwich who gave him the surname Sancho, as he reminded them of Don Quixote’s squire, Sancho Panza. The sisters failed to educate the young Sancho, but happily he met locally – in unknown circumstances – the 2nd Duke of Montagu, who recognising Sancho’s intelligence, bade him visit regularly, providing education and books. On the 2nd Duke’s death in 1749, Sancho lost his most important connection outside his own, confined household. He fled to the Dowager Duchess, whereupon he was freed and appointed as her butler. After her death in 1751, Sancho was provided for in her will, and launched an unsuccessful stage career. In 1766 he was appointed by the late Duke’s son-in-law, the 1st Duke of Montagu (of the 2nd creation) as his valet. Montagu introduced Sancho to high Society, as evidenced by the aristocratic dedicatees of his various published musical compositions. Sancho also published newspaper essays expressing his allegiance to Britain and the monarchy under his own name and the pseudonym Africanus. He was the first Afro-Briton to publish in Britain.

By January 1774 Sancho was suffering from gout and unfit to continue his service as Montagu’s valet, so the Duke assisted him in establishing a grocery shop in Westminster. Ironically his shop sold goods including tobacco, sugar and tea produced by enslaved people in the West Indies. It was this property ownership and financial independence which qualified Sancho to vote – the first Afro-Briton to do so – in 1774 and 1780. He died in December 1780 and was the first Afro-Briton to receive an obituary in the British press.

Sancho was a keen correspondent with his many friends of varied ages and social status – ranging from the Duchess of Northumberland to the sculptor Joseph Nollekens – writing with a friendly ease and often discussing current events in the most informed and humorous manner. In 1775, one of his letters was published in the Letters… of Laurence Sterne, bringing him considerable celebrity.  Sancho had encouraged Sterne in his opposition of slavery. To abolitionists, Sancho personified the humanity and worth of the African people, and the grave immorality of slavery. Even the famous slave-owner Thomas Jefferson acknowledged the quality of Sancho’s writing. In accord with the abolitionists, in 1782, one of Sancho’s correspondents, Frances Crewe, compiled and edited his letters with ‘the desire of shewing that an untutored African may possess abilities equal to an European’. There were more than 1,200 subscribers to the Letters… providing Sancho’s widow with a profit of over £500.

The title plate is illustrated with a portrait of Sancho, engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi after a 1768 painting by Thomas Gainsborough, produced when Sancho was Montagu’s valet, and now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. Sancho is not shown in a servant’s livery, but rather, in a sumptuous waistcoat, indicating his valued position within the Montagu household.

Sancho left Montagu’s household to establish his shop in 1774, but two years earlier in 1772, the architect Robert Adam had begun work on Montagu Villa in Richmond. It is therefore quite possible that Adam had the pleasure of meeting Sancho, and as it is reputed that Soane accessed the Adam office during his time as an architectural apprentice in the 1770s, he also may have known Sancho through this connection.

One year after the first edition of Sancho’s Letters…, in 1783, the first of two volumes of Beilby Porteus’s Sermons on several subjects… was published. In 1776-87 Porteus was the Bishop of Chester and he was a noted campaigner against the trade in enslaved people: this subject being mentioned on several occasions in his Sermons…. In the copy at the Soane Museum there is an annotation in ink on the title page reading: Eliza: Soane. / Febry 6. 1786, showing that it belonged to Soane’s wife, and on the first page there is an annotation: Bought for 4s. on 6 February 1786. A second volume of Porteus’s Sermons… was published in 1794, but Soane did not purchase this until the fourth edition of 1799. In 1802 he had both volumes handsomely bound together at a cost of 4s. 6d.

Perhaps less significant than Porteus’s Sermons…, but worthy of note in this context, is Soane’s purchase of five out of twenty parts of a short-lived journal entitled The New Magazine of Knowledge concerning Heaven and Hell…, published in 1790-91. It was edited by Robert Hindmarsh, the founder of the Swedenborgian Society, and each issue combined articles on theology with essays on science, natural history, poetry, current events, births, marriages, deaths, preferments, bankruptcies and general ideas. Earlier numbers in the series discuss the trade in enslaved people in a negative light.

Another important item in Soane’s collection is the work of another eighteenth-century Afro-Briton. It is Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and sentiments on the evil of slavery… of 1791. It praises the work of William Wilberforce and Granville Sharp and cites divine law and biblical precedent to explain the many evils of slavery. It calls for an immediate Abolition, and announces Cugoano’s – seemingly abortive – intention of founding a school specifically for Afro-Britons. Excitingly, Soane’s copy of the book is signed on page 46, Quobna Ottobouh Cugoano.

Ottobah Cugoano (b.1757) was kidnapped by fellow Africans aged around 13 from his home in present-day Ghana. He was enslaved and taken by Europeans to Grenada, but in 1772 he was purchased by an English merchant, Alexander Campbell (who testified in favour of the slave trade in the House of Commons in 1790), who took him to England where he was educated and freed following the Somersett Case of 1772. He was baptised ‘John Stuart’ in 1773, aged 16, at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, and a year later came into the employ of the artists Richard and Maria Cosway. In 1784 Richard Cosway made an etching of himself with his wife and Cugoano: the Cosways are dressed in Flemish costume à la Rubens, and Cugoano in the elaborate attire of a footman at the Vatican. This group portrait is preserved at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. While he was part of the Cosway household, Cugoano became acquainted with all manner of politerati, and also became a member of the African abolitionist organisation, Sons of Africa. He was an active abolitionist, corresponding with Granville Sharp, writing numerous letters to London newspapers and advocating a second attempt at settling free Afro-Britons in the area now known as Freetown in Sierra Leone. The first attempt of 1787 by 400 formerly enslaved people from London resulted in conflict with the local King, and their settlement was burnt and abandoned in 1789. There is no evidence that Cugoano went to Sierra Leone, but as the date and cause of his death are unknown it is possible that he travelled to Freetown sometime following its foundation in 1792 and never returned.

That Cugoano signed Soane’s copy of Thoughts and sentiments on the evil of slavery… suggests that Soane might have met him. Soane had known Maria Hadfield in Italy, prior to her marriage to Cosway in 1781. From 1801 entries in Soane’s notebooks (his diaries) refer to the couple and he corresponded with them from 1806. Naturally, this speculation is dependent on Cugoano’s tenure in the Cosway household and his lifespan.

Henry Nelson Coleridge, Six months in the West Indies, in 1825…, 3rd edition, 1832, title plate and map. SM 592.

White British writers are responsible for two other pro-emancipation items in Soane’s library. One is a publication of 1788 entitled Poems on slavery: by Maria Falconar, aged 17, and Harriet Falconar, aged 14. It contains an admirably-well written poem by each girl, both decrying slavery. The title plate carries a biblical quote which summarises the tone of the work: ‘If any Man be found stealing any of his Bretheren, and maketh Merchandise of him, or selleth him, then the Thief shall die, and thou shalt put away Evil from among you. Deut. xxiv.7.’ The other book is entitled Six months in the West Indies, in 1825…, written by Henry Nelson Coleridge, the nephew and son-in-law of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1825 he had accompanied his uncle, William Hart Coleridge, Bishop of Barbados (fl.1824-42), on a tour of the West Indian islands. Soane’s copy of the book is its third edition, published in 1832. The first edition had been published anonymously in 1826. One chapter deals with each island visited, and the final chapter is dedicated to ‘planters and slaves’. Coleridge describes the enslaved people as being worse-off than English peasants, although he does – naively – state that most enslaved people lived a reasonable quality of life; that most planters were less cruel than they were reputed to be, and that many enslaved people declined freedom when it was offered. However, he defined slavery as ‘disadvantageous to the general welfare of mankind’ and a ‘bad system’, calling for a gradual abolition which would allow time for the acclimatization of the enslaved people through a program of education, religion, the banning of corporal punishment for females, and enforcing the opportunity for enslaved people to purchase their freedom. He wrote:

The slaves will not be emancipated with dangerous abruptness, but they must be educated, and legally secured from the possible effects of caprice. The termination of slavery may be remote, but the process of enfranchisement must begin as to-day.

Clearly these suggestions are far too condescending and hesitant for modern sensibilities, but they would have been reasonably brave in 1825-26. Coleridge’s observations were made in 1825, nine years before the 750,000 enslaved people in the West Indies formally became free, and so his words illustrate the repulsive system of slave-powered West Indian plantations in full swing. It is likely that Coleridge’s negative views on slavery had resulted from what he had seen first-hand, but also that he had been influenced by his uncle the Bishop, who described the black population of Barbados as ‘civil’ and ‘decent’, and was responsible for the foundation of dozens of schools and churches for the freed Barbadian people.

Robert Henley Eden, 2nd Baron Henley, canvassing letter, 22 October 1832, verso. SM Priv. Corr. VI.J.1.7.

The final item within this category of what might be called pro-emancipation literature from Soane’s collection can be found in the archive of his personal and business papers. This is a letter from Robert Henley Eden, 2nd Baron Henley. Henley was a lawyer and his most prominent public office was as Master in Chancery, 1826-40. In 1824 he had married Harriet Eleanora Peel, the sister of Sir Robert Peel, 2nd Baronet, who later served twice as Prime Minister. Holding an Irish peerage, Henley was able to stand for a seat in the House of Commons. In 1832 he stood for the County of Middlesex – of which Soane at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields was a constituent – before withdrawing at some time before the poll took place after suffering regular popular abuse. However, his retirement from the race did not take place until after he had sent Soane – and presumably many others – a lithographically printed letter, dated 22 October 1832, in which he was soliciting votes. The first two-thirds of the letter deal with his interests in economic stability and Church reform, but the final third of the letter expresses Henley’s defiant stance against slavery and his opinion that it should be abolished immediately, as opposed to the gradual abolition which had been favoured by Coleridge. Henley closed his letter with the following unequivocal statement:

The nation has so long & so deeply participated in the guilt of the System, that any sacrifice which may be necessary to put an End to it, must be exclusively national. But as I have never yet seen any plea for the gradual Abolition of Slavery, which did not involve in it continuance of the System, I must, though at the hazard of losing many powerful & many estimable friends, repeat that I am the Advocate of its speedy and complete Abolition.

Although his candidacy never reached the poll, we know from this canvassing letter that Henley was in tune with the mood of the moment. The Slavery Abolition Act received Royal Assent in August 1833 and took effect one year later.

In the context of the Soane Museum collection, it is not the content of Henley’s letter which is most striking, but the fact that Soane took the trouble to keep it. This was not a solicited piece of mail, but a printed piece of essentially ephemeral canvassing material which had been produced en masse. While Soane is renowned for keeping every scrap of correspondence, this item clearly does not fall within that category – it is political advertising bumf. Moreover, Soane endorsed the letter by personally annotating the verso: 1832 / Novr / Lord Henley / Candidate for / a seat in / Parliament – and it was then safely put away in his archive. Apparently Soane felt that Henley’s words were worthy of note. By this date, Soane was preparing to leave his Museum to the nation, and by preserving this item of vehemently pro-emancipation literature within the collection, he was allying it with his own name and legacy.