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Write On! Interviews: Looking Back To Move Forward with Paterson Joseph

Write On! regular Thomas Nixon interviews Paterson Joseph

Looking Back To Move Forward
(c) Faye Thomas

I’m waiting for Paterson Joseph, acclaimed actor and debut author of The Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho, to appear on my screen. He’s used to appearing on the small screen, of course, with roles in Noughts & Crosses, Peep Show and Vigil, to name but a few. But when Paterson’s photo appears in full 18th Century regalia, I realise I’ll be meeting another character he’s brought to life: Charles Ignatius Sancho. Luckily, the ‘live’ Paterson appears a couple of moments later, and I take advantage of the stage already being set and dive straight in. What makes Paterson, a man who’s very much in the public eye in our modern world, connect so strongly to this little-known figure from over 200 years ago?

“Writing about Sancho was an act of remembrance for me. I wanted something private: an intimate form of storytelling. I wanted these diaries to show the journey of an articulate man being victimised by a system that wants to crush him. His survival, and why he wanted to survive, is fundamental.”

A litany of famous figures in British history dominate our public consciousness, their works and influence often threaded into the fabric of our culture on screen and through music, art and literature. Yet in this gallery of heroes, British abolitionist, writer and composer Ignatius Sancho (1729 – 1780) has remained a side note for over two centuries.

This is, until today, where Sancho is brought back to life in this unique fable, woven by Paterson into a charismatic adventure, his story taken from real history.

As a working-class writer from Sunderland, I wanted to explore how Sancho’s story has relevance in today’s context. How did Paterson set about creating his much deeper, more intimate portrayal from scraps of letters and a Gainsborough portrait?

First, Paterson shares a history of the man himself. Birthed into a world of fear and exploitation on a slave ship bound for New Guinea, Sancho was brought to London as a baby, where he was adopted by three sisters.

This began his long journey through the city and century, rising through adversity to eventually become the country’s first Black landowner, composer, actor, businessman and voter. Paterson tells me about Saidiya V. Hartman’s ‘Critical Fabulation’ methodology, which uses publicly available documents to tell a factual story, as the writer uses their own creative interpretations, allowing the reader to view real-life history through 21st Century eyes.

“If you can decode the words of a text, no matter if it’s from  thousands of years ago, then you’re hearing a voice speaking through time, to you.”

Not bound by the rules most historical biographers follow, Paterson uses other creative disciplines to make Sancho’s words leap out at us from the past.

“As an actor, it’s about getting into a character’s head. I used this to embody Sancho’s thoughts and energy, to discover what was behind his words.”

The catalyst for this was Paterson’s encounter with Gretchen Gerzina’s Black England: Life Before Emancipation. It reshaped the way he thought about Black history. Not just in the UK but also in London, the city which shaped the upbringing and identity of his important  protagonists, the Duke of Montagu and Sancho himself. As a result, the Secret Diaries also takes an unflinching look at the global slave trade. Through Sancho’s eyes and others close to him, we journey through aristocratic estates to the city’s underground pubs and gambling dens; a world where the cruelty of the Caribbean plantations are always lurking behind every shadow.

However, Paterson tells me he was clear from the start he didn’t write the book as a polemic (a strongly critical attack or controversial opinion). In fact, he went to great lengths to avoid what he calls “Slavery Porn.”  Instead, he tells me:

“Sancho is so non-binary as a character and so fluid in how he uses language to negotiate his way forward. He is not a cipher.”

Unsurprisingly, Sancho’s journey is as much about the human experience as it is human exploitation. Paterson conveys a passion for looking backwards into an unvarnished and truthful history as a way of looking towards a more connected future. Although race is the context, the class struggle is also very much in evidence.

“I don’t like to use the word ‘Race,’ because I think we’re all one race: the human race. We only invented the concept of ‘race’ much later, when we needed to come up with an excuse to exploit our own people.”

This is why Sancho’s education and articulacy is so important here; it’s at the heart of his progression through life. Language sets Sancho free, yet it’s his words that allow him to conquer life’s challenges in a world that wants to make him a victim. This contrast is particularly stark when seen in context, as literacy was a rarity for the majority of Londoners. With this in mind, I wanted to discover how Paterson’s own experiences shaped his retelling of Sancho’s story.

He tells me that, as a child growing up in London in the 1960’s and 70’s, educational opportunities for young black men like him were seen as a distant dream, his future tarnished by the “scientific racism” of the time.

Mirroring Sancho’s own journey, Paterson’s determination to succeed came from his own interest in literature, which would later become a passion for fact finding and research. And, like Sancho, once Paterson discovered his love of learning, he hungered for more.

“I was part of the Afro Caribbean contingent seen as ‘educationally subnormal.’ I ran away from school at 13 and spent days in the library. My education came from my curiosity.”

Sensing the passion in those words, I bring up the case of a man named James Somerset and the pivotal legal battle taking place in Sancho’s time and described in The Secret Diaries. A slave who had escaped from his masters, Somerset was taken into care by three godparents, and baptised as a Christian. Although he was eventually recaptured, beaten, and forced back into bondage, those same godparents brought his case to court. After much deliberation it was decided that, as a Christian man, Somerset’s imprisonment was unlawful. He was freed and, in doing so, set a precedent in motion. Paterson explains weaving this into the narrative.

“For me, this is the beauty of connecting history with fiction. We have no definite proof that Sancho was there, but owning a shop across the road from where the trial was taking place, means he’d certainly have known about it.”

This powerful example of how Black men and women were seen at the time, makes me think about the nature of identity. How do we work out who we are and where we come from? Paterson and I agree education is the key; however, we also find ourselves agreeing that education in its current form doesn’t necessarily serve the aspirations and needs of young people. In my own experience, there was certainly more focus on achieving arbitrary grades, rather than actual learning.

“I’m of the school of thought where we can educate ourselves: education for its own sake,” Paterson shares.

To take our discussion further, I draw on a line spoken by Montagu in the Diaries that particularly captured my attention: Words frame ideas, Sancho, as borders frame nations.

To Paterson, words and how we use them to express ourselves, is at his very core as a writer and actor. During our chat he’s quick to point out how vital it is to run the study of creative subjects alongside the STEM-focused system we’re currently using.

“If you’re a young person with tons of ideas in your head and no outlet, that causes all kinds of problems!”

Sancho’s story moves us beyond issues of race and class, into a much wider human experience. His story is unique, but ultimately no different from the challenges and adversities we all face. Paterson himself is a strong advocate of creative risk, being willing to tell stories beyond ‘what we know’.

“I knew nothing about the history of Black England, but Gretchen Gerzina’s wonderful book taught me a lot. Write what you know, but don’t let that cliché restrict what we can know. As long as we research closely and ask those difficult questions, we shouldn’t be afraid to write the stories we want to write.”

Those words of universal appeal are what strike the strongest chord with me. Through his many struggles, most determined by the circumstances of colour and creed, Sancho became the master of his own destiny.

Despite the uncertainties we face, there is no reason why we can’t all do the same. Looking into the past through Sancho’s eyes has taught me many things. The crucial idea that I can see more clearly than all the others, is how an honest look at our collective history will help us create a better future. As long as we move forward with courage and conviction!

Find The Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho, on Amazon and in all good bookshops.


Issue 19 of Write On! is out now and you can read it online here. Find it in libraries and other outlets. You can find previous editions of our magazines here

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If you can decode the words of a text, no matter if it’s thousands of years ago, then you’re hearing a voice speaking through time, to you.