New Plaques for Black Icons: Sancho, Aldridge and Prince

By Kim Sherwood | 11 October 2007
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a round plaque with the name Mary Seacole on it

This winter three unsung black heroes of British history, Ignatius Sancho, Ira Aldridge and Mary Prince and have been remembered around London with commemorative plaques.

The memorials follow a year of increasing commemoration and recognition of the history of black people in Britain and are hopeful signals that these tributes will not simply be limited to 2007 but will continue into the future.

Nubian Jak Community Trust, the first group specifically designed to install plaques for black figures, have worked together with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the City of Westminster to create a permanent tribute to Ignatius Sancho. Born in 1729 to enslaved parents who both died while he was young, Sancho went from a life of slavery to become one of the most remarkable African men of his age. Sancho taught himself to read and write and, through his position as valet to Duke Montagu, he entered the elite circles of London and became an accomplished poet, playwright, musician, composer and writer. His books include Theory of Music, dedicated to the Princess Royal, while his friends and companions included artists such as Gainsborough, one of the most famous and royally favoured painters of the eighteenth century who captured Sancho in portrait. Ignatius Sancho was one of the first African shop-owners in Britain and is thought to be the first and only black voter in eighteenth century parliamentary elections. Following this extraordinary rise despite the strong prejudices of the period, Sancho reached further fame following his death in 1780 when The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African was released. The first published account of life as a black man in Britain by a former slave, the book became a best seller and was used by black abolitionists in the fight against slavery. The plaque has been erected on the FCO building which stands upon the site where Sancho lived and worked.

English Heritage has recently erected a Blue Plaque to Ira Aldridge (1807-1867), a remarkable Shakespearian actor and pioneer within theatre known as ‘the African Roscius’ after the great Roman actor born into slavery whose name became synonymous with excellence. The plaque has been placed at Aldridge’s final home 5 Hamlet Road, Upper Norwood. Aldridge is considered one of the finest interpreters and actors of Shakespearian theatre and the first black actor of his time to gain fame in London and Europe. Debuting in London in 1825 Aldridge was the first black actor to play Othello, a role dominated by white actors into the twentieth century. Great praise for his ‘wondrous versatility’ and stage presence overtook the early racist opposition as Aldridge played roles in Europe and England that had previously been left for white actors, including Macbeth, Shylock, Richard III and King Lear. One contemporary critic described his prominence as ‘a great moral lesson in favour of Anti-Slavery’. Aldridge died on tour in Poland after an award-winning career of sixty roles as the first succesful black actor in Britain and Europe and the first actor to deliver Shakespeare to Russian provinces. Oku Ekpenyon, who placed the 1826 portrait of Aldridge in the Old Vic amongst the other paintings of the theatre’s actors and who contributed to the Aldridge plaque, told Untold London: ‘Aldridge is just one example of the hidden 'Black' histories of this country… His London stage performances took place when the larger issue of colonial slavery was being debated in Parliament… Despite all the obstacles he faced, he achieved against all odds and this makes him a phenomenon that deserves the recognition of a Blue Plaque’.

The Borough of Camden and the Nubian Jak Community Trust unveiled a plaque on the 26th of October at Senate House to Mary Prince (1788-1833), the first published black female author in Britain. Prince’s autobiography History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave created outrage and controversy that galvanised both black and white abolitionists. Born into slavery, Mary Prince endured inhumane torture and brutality including phyiscal and sexual abuse and imprisonment at the hands of her Bermudian ‘owners’. She hoped the book would shine a light upon the treatment typical to the enslaved everywhere, letting the ‘good people in England... hear from a slave what a slave had felt and suffered’. Her remembrance is hoped similarly to be another step towards the understanding of slavery’s horrors and the recognition of vital black figures in the abolitionist movement.

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