Positive Presence of Absence: A History of the African Canadian Community through Works in the Permanent Collection of the National Gallery of Canada

GALLERY C208c Ignatius Sancho 1768 Thomas Gainsborough (British 1727 - 1788)

By the late eighteenth century dissension concerning slavery had increased on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the voices of opposition was that of the black intellectual Ignatius Sancho.

Ignatius Sancho, a prolific writer, who lived in freedom in England, was born on a Spanish slave ship. Sancho was a friend of novelist Laurence Stern until Stern's death just months before Gainsborough painted this portrait in 1768. Sancho wrote the following request to Stern beseeching him to:

"...give one half-hour's attention to slavery...- That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many..." [Sandhu, 1996:49] The letter received an immediate, supportive and touching reply.

Representations of black subjects typically reflected the artist's ideological view of slavery. Few black people were portrayed with the depth of feeling evoked in this portrait. Gainsborough conveys both the warmth and humour of Sancho's personality and his refined gentlemanly qualities. This is a sharp contrast to contemporary stereotypical images of black people. For this reason Gainsborough's portrait is exceptional. Abolitionists published Sancho's letters providing evidence of black literary accomplishment and invalidating the belief of black inferiority commonly held by proponents of slavery.

The 1803 publication Bartolozzi engraving of this painting as frontispiece.


February 20, 1999

"Ignatius Sancho was the first African prose writer whose work was published in England. A former slave and renowned shopkeeper, Sancho came to England at the age of two, it was 1731. The duke of Montague made him presents of books to cultivate the mind of a knowledge hungry Sancho. Later he went to serve the Dukes Widow at her home. Sancho was a great friend of the actor Garrick.

William Hogarth. David Garrick with his Wife Eva-Maria Veigel, 'La Violette' 1757. Oil on canvas. 133.3 x 104.1 cm. Royal Collection, Windsor Castle, UK.

It was at Garrick's suggestion that Sancho attempted acting the Black roles of Othello and Orinooko, however he was thwarted by his speech impediment. It was from his Grocers shop on Charles Street in Westminster that Sancho wrote his famous letters, and received his correspondents who included Garrick, The Montagues, the sculptor Nollekins and the writer Laurence Sterne.

Joseph Nollekens. 1776. Laurence Sterne. Marble. National Portrait Gallery, London

Amongst his achievements Sancho was almost certainly the model for a character 'Shina Cambo' in the 1790 novel 'Memoirs and opinions of Mr Blenfield'. This novel is perhaps the first instance in English Literature where white men visit the home of a Black family as equals and when black people are shown as integrated into White English Society. Sancho also enjoyed composing music. Sancho died in 1780, two years after his death his Letters were published. They attracted over 1,200 ubscibers, the highest subscription of any author of his time for 70 years. He was also painted by Gainsborough and it is also plausable that he was depicted in Hogarths' Taste of the high Life 1742. Further reading: - Letters of ignatus Sancho, Ed Paul Edwards, London: Dawsons of Pall Mall. Staying Power: the history of Black people in Britain Peter Fryer, (Pluto press, London 1984. England : Life before Emancipation Gretchen Gerzina, (John Murray, London, 1995."Published for and on behalf of Blacknet UK by RealDread Enterprises. Stoke on Trent.

William Hogarth. David Garrick as Richard III

"David Garrick (1717-1779) A great English actor, manager and dramatist, he began his actor’s career in 1741 and retired from the stage in 1776. He was equally at home in tragedy, comedy and farce, his play attracted crowds of public.

It was at Garrick's suggestion that Sancho attempted acting the Black roles of Othello and Orinooko, however he was thwarted by his speech impediment.

"Also David Garrick as Richard III, a "sublime history" portrait: Hogarth and Garrick became close friends, an association which strengthened the relationship between Hogarth and the stage already established through Fielding."

In 1749, he married Eva Marie Violetti (1724-1822) a Catholic Viennese dancer. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.http://hogarth.chez.tiscali.fr/biography/biography.htm"

Links to Ignatius Sancho:


A Meeting of the School Trustees, 1885 Robert Harris (Wales, 1849 - Quebec, 1919)

When Robert Harris painted this scene immortalizing Kate Henderson's confrontation with self-righteous Victorian values of rural Prince Edward Island he may not have intended such a universal message. Kate came to represent progressive thought. One of the "women fighting invisibly at her side (Williamson 1970)" was Sarah Harvie.

On Prince Edward Island in the 19th century, the gulf between the rich and the lower classes was enormous. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the Bog area of Charlottetown where many Black Islanders lived.

In the Bog, on Rochford Street, was an integrated school for the underprivileged. For over fifty years in the Bog School (1848 - 1903) Sarah Harvie, trained more than two thousand children. Sarah, who was African Canadian, was highly respected for the positive influence she exerted on the locality. (Hornby 1991) One can imagine the 1860 meeting in Charlottetown similar to the one portrayed here. Some protested the fact that children of "respectable parents" were sending their children to Sarah Harvie to benefit from her progressive teaching.

On the same street as the Bog School was Robert Harris' family church, St. Peter's. Harris who returned often to his Island home, was very attached to this Church. His brother was the architect of St. Peter's Chapel and Harris contributed numerous paintings to decorate the interior. It is from here that Harris was buried in 1919. In the 1880's Church meetings must have been heated when, against the wishes of more conservative members, St. Peter's Chapel became a Chapel of Ease for the poor people of the Bog. (Tuck 1997)

The Bog was razed in a redevelopment project shortly after the school's closing in 1903. With the local community scattered many black Islanders became part of an exodus. Within ten years the Island lost most of its African Canadians. The majority went to Boston, joining thousands of African Canadians moving south in search of community and opportunity. (Hornby 1991)

Williamson, Moncrieff, Robert Harris (1849 - 1919) An Unconventional Biography, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1970. (Williamson 1970)

Hornby, Jim, Black Islander: Prince Edward Island's Historical Black Community, Institute of Island Studies, no.3, Charlottetown: University of Prince Edward Island, 1991. (Hornby 1991)

Tuck, R.C., "St.Peter's Basilica", The Island Magazine, 1988. My information on this is based on a telephone call with Canon Tuck March, 1997. I have ordered at this at NAC. Changes may have to be made when I get the published article. (Tuck 1997)

In the 1870's Harris did sketches of "urchins" from the Bog. In 1904 he sketched Sam Martin's bridge. Martin, a former slave of a Loyalist was the founder of Charlottetown's black in the early 1800's.

Homage to Sarah Harvey, progressive teacher of the Bog's School for fifty years

"1946 Carrie Best, of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, starts publishing a newspaper called The Clarion. Later its name changes to The Negro Citizen. It continues publication for 1 0 years. As a publisher and writer, Carrie Best shows that Blacks are often not treated fairly in Nova Scotia. She shows how they are not served on restaurants, and kept out of theatres. Best helps to get rid of those practices, making Nova Scotia - and Canada a better place to live." Source

"This personal biography of Dr. Carrie Best includes details of the lives of the underprivilged in the Maritimes. Dr. Best who is well-known as poet, journalist, writer, broadcaster, civil rights worker, and community advocate was appointed as Officer of the Order of Canada in recognition of her humanitarian activities. In 1946 she started "The Clarion", the first Black newspaper in Nova Scotia, created to promote "inter-racial understanding and goodwill." She traveled throughout Nova Scotia to confirm and then publish allegations of racism in service areas such as restaurants."

Anne Packwood:

Anne Packwood celebrated her 100th birthday last summer, 1998, in Ottawa with almost a hundred friends from across the continent, as well as those who came from Bermuda. As part of the celebration a group came to the National Gallery of Canada for short slide presentation and a visit to the sculpture of Tommy Simmons. It was one of the most memorable moments for me at the NGC. Among the visitors was Carrie Best, respected activist and author of Long Lonesome Road. Since then Anne Packwood had a serious fall in December ?1998 while in the nursing home on Bruyere Street. Her family is constantly with her. Her daughter Lucille spends many hours at her side.

Orson Wheeler presented the sculpture of Lucille Vaughan as a young girl in 1955 as his diploma piece for the jury of the Royal Canadian Academy. This work represents a style and an ideological stand during the 1930's.

The model for Orson Wheeler's sculpture is Lucille Vaughan Quevas. Lucille comes from a family of activists in the African Canadian community of Montreal. Her mother Anne Packwood was honoured at the Museum of Civilisation's opening of Many Rivers to Cross with the Wazee award for her many years of outstanding service to the African Canadian community.

Anne Packwood's father George De Shield, was in Wolfcove?, Nova Scotia. His father and uncles were seamen, whalers and probably travelled often between Newfoundland, the Maritimes and Bermuda. Their ancestors on the paternal side were freemen. There were never slaves on the father's side. Their name was their own, De Shield. It did not derive from a white master's name as many did. There were three French-speaking brothers , from Martinique. They were well-known. One was a wood-carver who made a beautiful pulpit in Bermuda. The three De Shield brothers, very gentle people. Her grandfather helped found the Black Union United Church in the early 1900's. Her father's first wife, Anne's mother, died in Bermuda and Anne stayed there until she was old enough to travel to Canada to join her father and his new wife. In 1905, when she was about 7 years old she made the journey by boat from Bermuda to Montreal. (Lucille, 02/10/1996, MFB) On the way through Boston, then Halifax and Saint John a whale followed her ship. She remembered this vividly even into her later years. Her father travelled right across the country but there is no proof that he was working for the railway. (Lucille) However in the Many Rivers to Cross documentation, he was described as a nation-builder who helped build the transcontinenetal railway. About 1900 a number of people of African Canadian descent arrived to work on the new transcontinental railways and settled primarily in Montreal and Toronto. Others were recruited through government schemes to provide cheap labour in N.S. for Sydney's steel plants and the coal mines of Glace Bay. (Hume, 1991)

Even though they were not rich, Anne found a way to return to Bermuda every second year. She was widowed young, when she was only in her thirties.

She remembers the impact of Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) on the Montreal Black community of the 1920's. She herself would become the secretary of the UNIA Literary Club. She was a kindergarten teacher; she organised special tutoring classes; she assisted in programs for the needy through the YMCA and received numerous awards for her community work in Montreal. In an interview with Janice? Anne Packwood described Garvey as being a "Moses come to lead his people through the wilderness. ... You learned how to be proud of your blackness. You marched to a drum of a different beat." (Kennedy, 1992)

In Quebec at that time it was hard to be a woman letfield, well-known for her work with the CBC and the United Nations has just completed a book called The Crystal Staircase.

(Solomon's life was changed when the North African Queen of Sheba (Makeda) made her brief but epic journey from her Kingdom in Ethiopia to visit him in Israel. Makeda became one of Solomon's wives and adopted Judaism. It was Makeda with King Solomon who founded the royal family of Ethiopia that lasted for 3000 years, until the 1970's. Through them Ethiopia became a rich nation.

Elizabeth Wynn Wood, Head of a Negress, 1926 bronze

""While the subject of Wyn's Wood's portrait remains unidentified, Orson Wheeler's Head of Girl represents a rare moment when some of the artistic conception are known. Wheeler's portrait represented Lucille Vaughan. Wheeler was an art professor at Concordia University in Montreal when he asked Lucille, then a student, to sit for a portrait. The exact nature of their relationship and interaction has not been thoroughly documented. Such specific information would shed light on the processes of creation which resulted in this individualized study of a young woman with a distant and introspective countenance. (Nelson 1998:25)"

Suzie, Mairuth and Lucille were doing a theatral production, Emperor Jones, with the Negro Theatre Guild featuring the well-known actor, Vi