Not Just Black & White: Dido Elizabeth Belle

In the halls of Kenwood House, a mysterious portrait has fascinated art scholars for hundreds of years. On paper the story seems generic. The Earl and Countess of Mansfield commissioned it, and it portrays their two nieces, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Elizabeth Murray. It’s only when you look at the portrait you see the story, in particular that of the woman on the left, Dido. Dido had an unusual circumstance, she was a mixed-race noblewoman in 18th Century England. More crucially, this portrait depicts both Dido and Elizabeth in equal stature, at a time when any non-white subjects was portrayed in a subservient (if not outright racist) position. This portrait is a main plot device in Amma Asante’s 2013 film Belle, chronicling the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, and her unique social position.

Born around 1761 to Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle’s father was Sir John Lindsay, a Scottish nobleman who joined the British navy during the Seven Years War. Lindsay was stationed in the Caribbean and assigned to capture Spanish ships in the region. On one such ship was Maria Belle where the two entered a supposedly consensual relationship. Other than being the mother of Dido, we do not know what happened to Maria Belle. Whether she died of natural causes or Lindsay cast her aside is unknown. Even in the film, there is no direct answer, and it only implies her passing. At the end of The Seven Years War in 1765, Sir John took Dido with him to England for his aunt and uncle, the Earl and Countess of Mansfield, to raise.

The Earl and Countess, better known as William and Elizabeth Murray lived in Kenwood House, their charming country estate, on the outskirts of London. While William and Elizabeth had no children of their own, they had care of their other niece, Elizabeth. Little Elizabeth had also lost her mother and her father had little interest in her, so he dumped her at Kenwood. As Elizabeth was the about the same age as Dido, many believe the Earl and Countess took in Dido provide Elizabeth with company.

The two girls grew close to each other as illustrated in the film and in the mentioned portrait. While everyone expected the white, legitimate heiress Elizabeth would marry well (and she did) it was uncertain what would lie in Dido’s future. After all, Dido bore the double stigma of illegitimacy and mixed-race. It wouldn’t be acceptable for her to marry below her position, but as Belle (2013) shows, the prejudiced upper classes balked at the thought of marrying a non-white illegitimate woman. Concealing spoilers, the film explores how Dido and others view her in this constricted world. It documents her struggles of fitting in a white-washed existence and how Dido carves her place amongst others prejudice. Moreso, this film not only contains Dido’s story, but also the wider context of black people who didn’t have Dido’s limited protection and the growing abolitionist movement.

I won’t spoil the ending, so I’ll just outline what we know about the “real” life of Dido. As Elizabeth grew older, society expected Dido’s position to evolve from a playmate into a Lady’s companion. It was not a bad situation, as Lady’s companions didn’t have to do any physical work, and received a small wage. However, Dido’s closeness with her great-uncle, ensured she stayed on at Kenwood House. The Earl of Mansfield, although born into nobility, was the fourth son. Knowing he would have to pave his own way, he began a career in law. His excellence and success saw him appointed as Lord Chief Justice, the highest position in the country and eventually received his own peerage title.

Dido had always taken an interest in his work. A former American governor, Thomas Hutchinson, visited the Mansfield’s and remarked that Dido “was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that, and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said.”

When she was old enough Dido took on responsibilities and assisted Lord Mansfield in his correspondence and paperwork. Since a male clerk usually filled such a position, for her to undertake it and receive a yearly wage too, was unusual. This shows that Lord Mansfield trusted Dido and valued her intelligence. Lord Mansfield himself presided over two major legal cases, Somerset’s case (1772), and the Zong massacre (1781), both concerning slavery.

In Somerset’s case, James Somerset was an enslaved African man sold in Colonial America, but after his owner brought him to England, he escaped. Somerset found himself supported by the abolitionist movement, who claimed English law had never defined slavery and thus it was never legal. Lord Mansfield ruled that James Somerset was a free man, and while he never defined that slavery was illegal in England, this was a major advancement for the abolitionist movement. Nine years later, the Zong massacre caused a sensation. The crew of the Zong slave ship massacred 133 slaves, after the crew made mistakes, to save themselves and claim on the insurance. Although the abolitionists failed to have the crew of the Zong charged with manslaughter, Lord Mansfield ruled against the crew. While again this did not mark the formal end of slavery, it was again a large cause of celebration for the abolitionist movement.

Many at the time believed Lord Mansfield’s relationship with Dido had sympathized him towards the abolitionist cause. Some have even argued that she might have influenced his decision. As Dido was only about eleven at the time of Somerset’s case, I can’t believe she had an overt influence over Lord Mansfield’s verdict, whereas, she was a young woman at the time of the Zong massacre, but we have no evidence, secondary or otherwise of her thoughts. Therefore, Dido’s influence and opinions on these landmark events remains a mystery.

Sir John Lindsay died in 1788, with no legitimate children. He left a sum of £1000 to be split amongst his natural children, and I assume Dido received her share. She also inherited £100 from a Lady Margery Murray, another relative close to the Mansfields. Upon Lord Mansfield’s death in 1793, she was also left a lump sum of £500, and £100 to be paid to her every year—ensuring Dido was financially stable for the rest of her life. Later that year Dido married John Davinier, a French steward, and the two set up house in West London. Soon afterwards they had three children, twins Charles and John in 1795, and William in 1802. Like much of Dido’s biography, we know little until her in death in 1805, at the young age of 43.

It is easy to see how Dido’s story has fascinated individuals to this day. The tale of a young woman caught between separate worlds, only longing to belong, is one that many people, regardless of the time period, can relate to. Despite the odds stacked against her, Dido found happiness and stability in her short life. As times are changing, many historians are now trying to revise history, and are bringing forward figures (like Dido) once erased from existence. The story of Dido Elizabeth Belle itself shows how history isn’t black and white.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.

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