- LIVE TV
Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate, mixed race daughter of an 18th-century naval captain and subject of a new film, was a Lady like no other.
The amazing thing about Dido Elizabeth Belle is not that she was mixed-race. Who knows how many white men’s children were born to black slave women in the 18th century? It’s not even that her father was a wealthy English aristocrat – there were plenty of titled captains tearing around the Caribbean at that time, capturing French and Dutch schooners during the Seven Years’ War and making off with their sugar, coffee and other (often human) cargo. The extraordinary thing about Dido Belle is that her father, a 24-year-old Navy officer called John Lindsay, took her home to England and asked his extended family to raise her. And they did. They did it in some style, too.
Belle grew up in Kenwood House in north London. It was the palatial weekend retreat of Lindsay’s uncle, the first Earl of Mansfield, set in landscaped gardens with a view of St Paul’s Cathedral six miles away. Mansfield was Lord Chief Justice, and he made a number of landmark rulings on slavery that were among Britain’s first steps towards abolition. Did Belle’s presence in his home have anything to do with it? Plenty of his contemporaries thought so, and they didn’t admire him for it.
“Dido was very, very privileged,” says William Murray, a descendant of the earl and the son of the heir apparent. “She was in the top 5 per cent, perhaps the top 1 per cent, in terms of how she lived, her allowance, her dress, her education.” But Belle’s position was far from clear-cut.
At Kenwood, says Murray, “she was treated like the rest of the family – when it was just the family. Where it got awkward is when they had guests in,” he says. The black, illegitimate daughter of a nobleman occupied a peculiar, between-stairs rank; too well-born to belong to the serving classes but too different to be wholly welcome in high society. When the Mansfields were entertaining, Belle didn’t eat with their guests.
All of this makes Belle, the forthcoming film about Dido’s life from the Bafta-winning director Amma Asante, one of the most unusual costume dramas to hit the big screen. The fabulous gowns, eligible young men and barely suppressed class anxieties of London’s social “season” are all present and correct. But other, rarely registered aspects of Jane Austen’s England are at the centre of the frame: the uncomfortable knowledge of where the fragrant leaves and sculpted sugar loaves at the ladies’ tea parties have come from; and, in Belle (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who was Ophelia opposite Jude Law’s Hamlet at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009), the evidence of what their men got up to when they were far away at sea or on the plantations.
We tend to think of mixed-race children as a modern phenomenon, but London has been a cultural melting pot since at least Roman times. There were around 10,000 black people in the city, and many more of mixed parentage by the time Belle was born in 1761. Lindsay seems to have met Belle’s mother, a slave named Maria, on a captured ship in the West Indies. He was a young bachelor, but already much-feted by the newspapers back home for his exploits.
Their story is recounted in the diaries of Thomas Hutchinson, a former governor of Massachusetts who attended a dinner party at Kenwood in August 1779. He met Belle during his visit, who was about 18 at the time. “A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies,” he writes, “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,” he continues, “but 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, 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,” Hutchinson observes, going on to recall one of Mansfield’s cases. “A few years ago there was a cause before his Lordship brought by a Black for recovery of his liberty. A Jamaica planter, being asked what judgment his Lordship would give [answered] ‘No doubt…he will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family.’”
The case was that of James Somerset. A slave who had been brought to England, Somerset escaped, was caught and then forced onto a ship bound for the West Indies. Somerset’s “owner” argued he could do with him as he pleased. But witnesses were shocked by Somerset’s violent capture and commentators horrified that a man’s freedom could be denied on English soil. Mansfield (played in the film by Tom Wilkinson) set him free, judging that colony slave laws were not binding in England. “The state of slavery is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it,” he said.
Dido Belle wasn’t the only child in the Mansfields’ care. They were also bringing up Elizabeth Murray, the daughter of their nephew Lord Stormont, whose wife had died when Elizabeth was six. The two girls appear in a double portrait that once hung at Kenwood and is now at Scone Palace, Lord Mansfield’s ancestral home in Scotland. It was this portrait that piqued the curiosity of Misan Sagay, Belle’s scriptwriter, and started the decade-long process of getting the film made. “I was amazed to see this black girl gazing out at the viewer,” says Sagay.
When the painting was later shown to Amma Asante she had a similar reaction. “For centuries, black people were basically accessories in paintings, there to express the status of the white people,” says Asante. “We were never looking out at the painter but up in awe at the white protagonist. I knew this was something very different.” Esther Chadwick, a member of the History of Art department at Yale University, agrees. “What’s remarkable is that Dido is painted at the same height as Elizabeth Murray, and Elizabeth Murray is shown reaching out to her. But what’s most unusual is her direct gaze.”
Kenwood’s accounts show Belle was on an almost-equal footing with Elizabeth. She had a four-poster bed draped in chintz, mahogany furniture in her rooms and costly remedies, purchased when she was ill. She received an allowance of £30 a year – twice the annual salary of the first coachman, but far less than Elizabeth’s £100.
Although little is known about Belle as a person, she seems to have enjoyed a close relationship with her adoptive guardian. Hutchinson recollects that “she was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that, and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said”. Mansfield sometimes dictated letters to Belle (who had beautiful handwriting) so it’s entirely possible she would have been aware of his cases. One of these was the Zong insurance claim, which forms the centrepiece of the film.
In 1781, a slave ship bound for Jamaica threw 132 slaves overboard. The ship’s owners claimed the vessel had run out of water and the crew had to sacrifice some slaves to save the 300 others on board. Now, they wanted their insurers to pay up for the lost “cargo”. The insurance company rejected the claim and it found its way to Lord Mansfield.
“It is a very shocking case,” he wrote. It appalled English society. The legal argument hinged on whether the slaves had been killed out of necessity or whether, as was suspected, they had become diseased during the journey – and therefore worthless – and had been murdered for the insurance payout. In the end, the owners couldn’t prove necessity and dropped the claim amid a storm of negative publicity. In the film, Belle experiences a political awakening during the trial and becomes involved in the fight against the ship’s owners. Whether or not this happened, how must she have felt – and how must Mansfield have felt – knowing that her own mother had been a slave and that she, too, could easily have met the same fate?
For a long time, the double portrait at Scone Palace was labelled with only one name: “the Lady Elizabeth Murray”. As William Murray explains, “It was only when my grandmother was taking some tourists around Scone in the early Nineties that one of them who had heard of Dido questioned who was in this portrait.” The family started digging for information. Unbeknown to them, Margo Stringfield, an archaeologist at the University of West Florida, was simultaneously digging the site of the house of one Maria Belle. Her work has only just become known to the Murray family and to British researchers. Stringfield found, among other things, a document, signed by Sir John Lindsay, deeding a lot in Pensacola, Florida, to Maria in 1772. “It was such an unusual situation,” she tells me. “You would not normally have men conveying property to an ex-slave.”
In 1764, when Dido was three, Lindsay was sent to Pensacola to test naval equipment. Maria Belle probably accompanied him and this is when Dido most likely passed into the Mansfields’ care. “It was not unusual for men in frontier settings to have women with them that were not their wives,” says Stringfield.
Once in Florida, Lindsay took his pick of land that had been granted to the British Navy. “The British named the streets after men of importance and I believe Lindsay chose this lot deliberately,” says Stringfield. Maria Belle’s former house is on the corner of Lindsay and Mansfield streets. Lindsay and Maria returned to London in subsequent years and their relationship continued well into Lindsay’s 1768 marriage to Mary Milner, an MP’s daughter. But it appears to have ended in 1774, when Maria returned to Pensacola alone.
In the deed for the house, Lindsay guaranteed Maria her freedom, and, from Stringfield’s excavations of the site, it looks like he set her up well. Stringfield has found china tea pots and cups, “a beautiful decanter top” and pieces of delicate wine glass. “It was certainly a genteel life,” she says.
Frontier society was relaxed, says Stringfield, and Maria “probably had women friends in a similar situation to herself here.” Life at Kenwood couldn’t have been more different. The Mansfields would have been keenly aware of the furore Dido’s presence in their home caused. In Belle they’re less than delighted when Lindsay turns up with his dark-skinned child. “She is black,” says an astonished Lady Mansfield (played by Emily Watson). “She is my blood,” he replies.
“So why did the first Earl take her on?” asks William Murray. “I think it’s because of his own experience of being an outsider.” Mansfield grew up in Scotland, the fourth son of the Viscount of Stormont. It was a noble but impoverished line and Mansfield was dispatched to London aged 12 to make his own way.
Lord Mansfield died in 1793, aged 87, and Belle married five months later. He left Belle an inheritance and an annuity of £100 for life. In his will he wrote, “I assert to Dido her freedom.” Mansfield’s sister (played by Penelope Wilton in the film) also left her money as did Sir John Lindsay. He had no children with his wife but his will mentions a second illegitimate child, John. Maria Belle’s son? Who knows.
Little is known about Belle’s life after Kenwood. She married John Davinier – a law student in “Belle” but a steward in real life, and the son of the local Reverend in Hampstead. According to Murray, they had known each other, at least by sight, for many years. They moved to what is now Ebury Street in Belgravia and had three children, one of whom joined the East India Company. Belle died of natural causes aged 41 and was buried in the St George’s, Hanover Square, overspill burial ground on Bayswater Road. That was cleared to make way for the redevelopment of the Bayswater area in the Seventies. Nobody’s quite sure where she is now.
‘Belle’ is released on June 13. The portrait of Belle and Elizabeth Murray is on display at Scone Palace as part of ‘Dido – Her Story’, until October 31; www.scone-palace.co.uk
– The Telegraph