Laurence Sterne – letter for the abolition of slavery

Laurence Sterne was a popular novelist and clergyman in the 18th century. He was from Tipperary and was one of the first notable writers to campaign for the abolition of slavery.

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He struggled with illness throughout his life and hoped that a warmer climate would be beneficial to his health. He moved to France and was a popular figure due the success of his novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Sterne then moved on to Italy and but his health deteriorated further. Before he died, he wrote his final novel, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy.

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Ignatius Sancho request to Sterne

Another mark that Sterne left was a letter he wrote to Ignatius Sancho, a black butler to a British nobleman. Sancho had been born on a slave ship before moving to England and working for the Duke of Montagu. He was an intelligent man and was encouraged by his employer to immerse himself in study of the vast collections of fine arts, literature and music within the household.

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Lawrence Sterne quote on respect for others. Image copyright - Ireland Calling

Sancho wrote to Sterne to request he use his writing abilities to compose a letter for the abolition of slavery. By chance, when Sterne received the letter, he had just written about an incident in his latest novel, where his main character was left feeling disgusted after witnessing a slave working in a shop being treated poorly.

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Extract from Laurence Sterne’s letter

Sterne gladly obliged to Sancho’s request, and here is an extract from his return letter:

“There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl, and my eyes had scarce done smarting with it, when your letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren, came to me.

“But why her brethren?—or your’s, Sancho! Any more than mine?

“It is by the finest tints that nature descends from the fairest face to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it that the ties of blood are to cease?

“And how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ’ere mercy is to vanish with them? But ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, and then endeavour to make ’em so.”

Because of Sterne’s status, as a highly educated and successful writer, the letter became a powerful weapon in Britain in the fight for the abolition of slavery.

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