Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761–1804) was a bi-racial (an African at that time) Londoner noted by British historians for helping to end slavery in Britain. Belle grew up at Kenwood House, Hampstead, London NW3, (now an English Heritage property, 020 8348 1286). She was the great-niece of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who as Lord Chief Justice presided over many of the historic cases that affected enslaved Africans. Dido was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Mansfield’s nephew, Admiral Sir John Lindsay, a British Navy captain, and an enslaved African woman known as Marie Belle whom Sir John encountered while his ship was in the Caribbean. A film of Belle`s extraordinary life, Belle, directed by the Ghanaian-born British film director Amma Asante is out this spring with a cast including the South African-born British actress Gugu Mabtha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Tom Felton, Miranda Richardson etc.
Dido Elizabeth Belle was born around 1761. She was baptised in 1766 at St. George's Church, Bloomsbury. Her baptism record shows that she was born while her father, John Lindsay, was in the West Indies and that her mother's name was Maria Belle. It has been suggested that her mother was an African slave captured from a Spanish ship during the capture of Havana from the Spanish in 1762. Lindsay was at the time a Royal Navy captain on HMS Trent, a warship based in the West Indies that took part in the battle.
Lindsay sent the child Dido to her uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, who lived with her family at Kenwood House in Hampstead, just outside London, England. Mansfield and his wife, who were childless, were already raising Dido's cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray after her mother's death; Dido was about the same age as Elizabeth. It is possible that Mansfield took Dido in to be Elizabeth's playmate and, later in life, her personal attendant (her role within the family, as outlined below, suggests that her standing was more that of a lady's companion than a lady's maid).
Dido spent some thirty years at Kenwood House. Her position was unusual, because she was formally the daughter of a slave, and as such would have been considered a slave outside of England. But she was to some extent treated as a member of the family. Lord Mansfield himself resolved this paradox in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. When called on to judge the case of an escaped slave, Somersett's Case, he decreed:
"The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons,
moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons,
occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it's so odious,
that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore,
may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England."
Mansfield's decision was taken by abolitionists to mean that slavery was abolished in England, although his wording reserves judgment on this point, and he later said his decision was only to apply to the slave at issue in the case. Historians have since suggested that Mansfield's personal experience influenced his decision.
A painting of 1779, formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany, depicts Dido alongside her cousin Elizabeth, carrying exotic fruit and wearing a turban with a large feather. Dido is portrayed with extraordinary vivacity, while the depiction of her cousin is stiff and formalized. The painting, which hangs at Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland, is owned by the present Earl of Mansfield and in 2007 was exhibited in Kenwood during an exhibition to run alongside events marking the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807.
There is evidence that Dido was not treated as a full and equal family member, dining separately from the family when they had guests, only joining the women for coffee after the meal. Although Dido’s £30 allowance was a considerable amount at the time, it was much less than her cousin Elizabeth’s. However despite the lack of full acceptance of Dido as a mixed race family member, a guest to Kenwood House remarked that Lord Mansfield “called upon [her]…every minute for this and that, and showed the greatest attention to everything she said.”
In 1779 following a dinner at Kenwood House, American Thomas Hutchinson, ex Governor of Massachusetts, wrote in his diary,
“A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies and after coffee, walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other. She had a very high cap and her wool was much frizzled in her neck, but not enough to answer the large curls now in fashion. She is neither handsome nor genteel – pert enough. I knew her history before, buyt my Lord mentioned it again. Sir John Lindsay having taken her mother prisoner in a Spanish vessel, brought her to England where she was delivered of this girl, of which she was then with child, and which was taken care of by Lord M., and has been educated by his family. He calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for showing fondness for her – I dare not day criminal.
A few years ago there was a cause before his Lordship bro’t by a Black for recovery of his liberty. A Jamaica planter being asked what judgement his Ldship would give? “No doubt” he answered “He will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family.”
Hutchinson continued that "She is a sort of Superintendant over the dairy, poultry yard, etc, which we visited. And she was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that, and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said.”
As well as supervising the poultry and dairy yard, typical genteel hobbies for a lady, Dido acted as secretary to Lord Mansfield in his later years writing out letters on his behalf.
It is not certain what Dido’s legal status was in her early life, as in his will Lord Mansfield stated “I confirm to Dido Elizabeth Belle her freedom.” On her father’s death in 1788 the London Chronicle reported that,
“…he has died, we believe, without any legitimate issue but has left one natural daughter, a Mulatto who has been brought up in Lord Mansfeld’s family almost from her infancy…”
Dido married John Davinier, a gentleman steward, in 1793 at St George’s, Hanover Square together they had three sons: twins Charles and John (baptised at St George’s on 8 May 1795) and William Thomas (baptised at St. George’s on 26 January 1802). They lived in what is now Ebury Street, Pimlico.
Dido died in July 1804, at 43 years of age and was buried in St George’s Fields. In the 1970′s the burial ground was deconsecrated and sold off by the church to developers. Dido’s body was exhumed and reburied as were the other bodies buried there.
Mansfield family tree
|David Murray||Majory Scott|
|David Murray||Anne Stewart|
|2) Louisa Schaw Cathcart||David Murray||1) Henrietta Frederica Bunau||James Murray||John Murray||Catherine Murray||Marjorie Murray||Amelia Murray||Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick|
|Five children||Daniel Finch||Anne Hatton|
|Elizabeth Belle||John Lindsay|
|Other children||Edward Finch||Elizabeth Finch||William Murray|
|Dido Elizabeth Belle|
|Elizabeth Murray||George Finch-Hatton|
The story behind Dido Belle - the bi-racial Londoner who helped end slavery in Britain
Susannah Butter tells the tale of Dido Belle, ahead of the release of a film about her extraordinary life starring Tom Felton and Miranda Richardson.
Among the many aristocratic faces gazing out of frames in Hampstead’s newly refurbished Kenwood House, there’s one that sticks out. Standing next to Elizabeth Murray in a print of Johann Zoffany’s portrait from c.1799, there is a smiling girl wearing pearls. But although she looks equal to her playmate, she is black. This girl is Dido Belle, the daughter of an enslaved woman. Belle was brought up at Kenwood, a house partially built with “blood money” from the Triangular Trade, and she made her own contribution to the abolition of slavery. A film of her extraordinary life, Belle, is out this spring with a cast including Tom Felton and Miranda Richardson.
It comes after two films examining the black historical experience: British director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels’s The Butler, both set in the United States. But there is another story of slavery that needs telling and it’s set in London.
Belle’s tale spans Hampstead, Pimlico and 1970s South Africa. “It’s about identity and finding one’s place,” says the film’s producer Damian Jones, whose previous work includes The History Boys. He lives near Kenwood and wanted to tell Belle’s story after seeing the portrait there (the original is now at Scone Palace in Perthshire but a print is displayed in London). “I thought it was extraordinary — in a rare move for that time a black woman is portrayed as an equal to a white woman. It opens up a lot of questions. Belle’s story ticks the romantic period movie boxes but there’s also a message that’s resonant today.”
Chiwetel Ejiofor, star of 12 Years a Slave, recently said we have a “reflex fear” that stops us telling the truth of Britain’s debt to slavery. “People have a fear of questioning societies to which they owe their whole system of reality ... not just in the States, wherever countries still have benefits of that today ... I want [the history of slavery] taught in every school, because ultimately it speaks to human respect, and what happens when there are prejudices and where that has led the human race in our history. And could again, very easily.”
Laura Houliston, English Heritage’s curator at Kenwood, says: “Slavery wasn’t just about sugar kings living on land. It affected most homes in England.” So who is the girl in the picture, and what is her relevance to the capital today?
Belle was born the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay of the Royal Navy and Maria Belle, a slave who he met en route from England to Jamaica around 1761. When Lindsay went back to the navy, he entrusted five-year-old Belle to his uncle, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, who lived at Kenwood. Lord and Lady Mansfield had no children of their own but raised Belle with Lady Elizabeth Murray, the daughter of Mansfield’s other nephew, David Murray.
“The idea that there was this girl who was part of our cultural legacy in England — a mixed race woman in the 1780s — hooked me,” says Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the London actress who plays Belle. “Speaking as a mixed-race woman in 2013, there aren’t many historical stories about people like me. When people think of ‘dual heritage,’ they think it’s a modern concept but it’s not. I wanted to do justice to Dido.”
Houliston says: “Visitors were astonished that a black girl was allowed to join the family after dinner; she could converse and play piano.” Mansfield appears to have treated Belle and Elizabeth Murray equally, buying them the same silks. This equality is evident in his will, where he left Belle a large amount of money. He also restated there that she was free. The film’s director Amma Asante was impressed that Mansfield treated Belle as he did: “I’m in awe of the level of courage that must have taken.”
In 1772, when Belle was around 11, her great-uncle made a ruling that would change history and eventually lead to abolition in 1833. In the Somerset slavery case, he declared that slavery was unsupported by existing law in England and a master could not export British slaves. Then in 1781 he presided over the Zong Massacre case — when 142 African slaves were hurled from a ship and drowned so that their owners could claim insurance for “damaged cargo”. In a major blow to slave traders, Mansfield ruled that the slave owners could not claim money.
Mansfield was a man with a reputation as a legal moderate, who could have decided either way. How far did his great- niece influence him?
Belle left Kenwood in 1793, when she married John Davinier, an English steward at Kenwood. They lived in Pimlico and had three sons. Belle died in 1804, aged 43, but her family line continued. Her last recorded relation is a great-great grandson in South Africa, who died in 1975. In his death certificate his race is listed as white. He was a retired mechanic, married with no children. His father was called Charles Lindsay, “so they must have known there was a link to the Lindsay family,” says Houliston.
Belle’s mother, Maria, ended up in Florida, where John Lindsay gave her land and property. “This raises questions about his obligation to her,” says Houliston.
Of course being in the strange position of young, wealthy but mixed-race — neither a servant nor a legitimate member of the family — was trying. As a character, Belle is “feisty,” says Mbatha-Raw. “She realises the Mansfields protected her. It comes as a shock to her when some treat her like dirt.”
McQueen has said: “People somehow do not want to look at this particular time in history. Slavery lasted 400 years and there are fewer than 20 [films]. We have to redress that balance.” This morning his film 12 Years a Slave, gained 10 Bafta nominations to add to its seven for the Golden Globes.
Asante says: “The world is more ready for these stories than ever, to look at our history both good and bad.” As for Dido Belle, “her story belongs to all of us.”
Sagay adds that she was drawn to Belle because: “This is a period in our history that we should keep being reminded of. Today there are also judges like Mansfield debating questions that have frightening consequences. We need to remember those who stood up for what is right even though they knew it would have a difficult impact. Belle’s story is that of a quiet revolution, of not only a woman but a black woman influencing history.”
Casts of Belle