The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson Joseph

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

I must plead ignorance of the life of Ignatius Sancho, the eighteenth-century writer, composer, shopkeeper and abolitionist. When reading Diaries, I was struck by the identification of the text with Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy but it was little more than a casual observation, certainly nothing to be taken seriously. Paterson Joseph has done us all a favour in that respect.

In his foreword to the novel, Joseph says, perhaps rather grandly, that his aim is to depict the presence of Black people in British history “in the form in which I met Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Jane Eyre”. It’s a tough task for a writer to set themselves, but the care and research shine through in every chapter. This is a tragicomedy of the first order, and not to be missed.

One is forced to think of the forgotten coloured people who populated London in large numbers but were never given the grace of an identity. Charles Ignatius Sancho is cast as Paterson Joseph’s model. Born in a slaver’s ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, he begins life from a position of anonymity to be accepted by a Lord of the Cloth, with whose assistance Sancho runs up against both race and class hierarchies to become a social success. Educated and articulate, Sancho’s future seems assured until his notebook is discovered and his heritage is revealed. He demonstrates a resilience unknown to many men in shrugging off the abuse he received simply for being black.

How much of this book is true and how much author embellishment is a question each reader has to determine for himself. Georgian society, as depicted, is revealed to be a multilayered affair, and this is consistent with what the history books preach. Much truth exists but its presentation is a mockery that reduces the reader to doubt.  The sound of Sancho’s voice and the introduction of that old furphy, the personal letter, are two instances that could weaken belief but actually strengthen it.

There are instances in the novel that grate. These occur when Sancho corresponds with Anne, his wife-to-be. While her letters reveal her harrowing stay on two Caribbean slave plantations while nursing an aunt, the epistolary form keeps us at a distance. Joseph is at his best when on familiar ground and the story ignites with his description of Sancho’s short-lived attempts to tread the boards as Othello. But while uneven, this fictional account of a real man’s life resonates with compassion and offers a welcome insight into the presence of Black people in Georgian England. In like manner, the style of the information-giver conflicts with that of the raconteur. For instance, when Sancho visits slums off Oxford Road, we’re told the urchins’ “childhood is so short-lived, not just through disease and early death, but because they will have to work from the age of seven or so to earn the money to feed their little stomachs”.

We know that, though we might be unprepared to acknowledge it.

The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho


by Paterson Joseph

Dialogue Books

ISBN: 978-0-349-70238-4

$32.99; 432 pp

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

🤞 Want to get the latest book reviews in your inbox?

Scroll to Top