Dido Elizabeth Belle
Dido Elizabeth Belle
(1761–1804), was an illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman known as Maria Belle. Dido was sent to live in the household of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who was Lindsay's uncle and thus Dido's great-uncle. Remarkably, she was brought up as a free young gentlewoman at Kenwood House at the same time as her great-uncle, in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice, was called on to rule on cases affecting the legitimacy of the slave trade.
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. This is uncertain, however, as there is no reason why any of the Spanish ships (which were immobilised in the inner harbour) would have had women on board when they were delivered up on the formal surrender of the fortress.
Lindsay sent the child Dido to his uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, who lived with his 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.
Despite Mansfield's revulsion at slavery, the social conventions of his household are unclear. On the basis of a report by an American guest, it appeared that Dido would not dine with the rest of the family but joined the ladies for coffee afterwards in the drawing-room. Paula Byrne argues that Dido's exclusion from this dinner was pragmatic rather than the custom and points to other aspects of her life, such as expensive medical treatments and luxurious bedroom furnishings as evidence of her position as Elizabeth's equal at Kenwood. As she grew older, she took responsibility for the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood, and she also helped Mansfield with his correspondence - an indication that she was fairly well educated. The running of the dairy and poultry yard would have been a typical occupation for ladies of the gentry, but helping her uncle with his correspondence was less usual, since this was normally done by a secretary or a clerk, but not a female. Dido also received an annual allowance of £30 10s, several times the wages of a domestic servant; by contrast, Elizabeth received around £100, but she was an heiress in her own right, and Dido, quite apart from her race, was illegitimate in a time and place when great social stigma usually accompanied such status.
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 great vivacity, while the depiction of her cousin is more sedate and formal. Her cousin´s hand lies upon Dido´s waist, suggesting affection and equality rather than a subordinate status. 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.
When Dido's father died without legitimate heirs in 1788, he left £1000 to a son, and £1000 to his other illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth Lindsay or Palmer (born c. 1765) who lived in Scotland, asking his wife Mary to take care of her. Mary Lindsay's will does not mention Dido or Elizabeth Lindsay. Lord Mansfield left Dido £500 as an outright sum and a £100 annuity in his will, and officially confirmed her freedom.
After her uncle's death in March 1793, Dido married John Davinier, a Frenchman who worked as a gentleman's steward, on 5 December 1793 at St. George's, Hanover Square; both she and he were then residents of the parish. The Daviniers had three sons at least: twins Charles and John, baptized at St George's on 8 May 1795, and William Thomas, also baptized there on 26 January 1802.
Dido Belle Davinier died in 1804 and was buried in July that year at St George's Fields, a burial-ground close to what is now Bayswater Road; in the 1970s, however, the site was redeveloped and her grave was moved. She was survived by her husband, who later remarried and had two more children.
Belle's son Charles Davinier, went on to serve in what was informally known as the Indian Army, although his service probably began with one of the territorial armies that existed before the formation of the British Indian Army in 1858. Her last known descendant, her great-great-grandson Harold Davinier, died in South Africa in 1975 without having had children.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, left, and Sarah Gadon, who star as Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray in Belle
The film, Belle
(2013), by Amma Asante, charts Dido's paradoxical life as a mixed-race aristocrat in 18th-century England, at once an heiress and social pariah. The film stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido and Tom Wilkinson as her guardian, Lord Mansfield.
From Wikipedia.com. Further information about Dido, her place in the abolition of slavery in England and the film Belle can be found at the dailymail.com.