Dido Elizabeth Belle (1760s-1804) was the illegitimate daughter of Captain John Lindsay of the Royal Navy and Maria Belle, a slave of African origin. Lindsay and Belle met in the West Indies. Lindsay is thought to have found Maria Belle on a Spanish slave ship that his forces captured in the Caribbean, later taking her as his wife under the system of plaçage, wherein European men entered into civil unions with African women. Dido Belle spent part of her childhood in Pensacola in Spanish Florida, where Captain Lindsay was stationed from 1764 to 1765. Afterward, Lindsay brought Dido to England to stay with his uncle, William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield, and Murray’s wife. The couple was childless, already raising Elizabeth Murray, their great niece, and took Dido into their household, presumably as a companion for Elizabeth. She was baptized in St. George’s Church, the parish church of Lord Mansfield’s house in Bloomsbury Square, in London on November 20, 1766, at the age of five.
Although not their birth child, the Mansfield family granted Dido an allowance, gifted her expensive presents, and did not hide her presence in their household. Dido’s presence in the Mansfield home caused some to doubt whether Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, could provide unbiased verdicts in cases involving enslaved persons. In Somerset v. Stewart, Mansfield ruled in favor of James Somerset, an enslaved African purchased by custom officer Charles Stewart in Massachusetts. Stewart later took Somerset with him to England in 1769; Somerset later escaped in 1771. After recapturing Somerset, Stewart had him imprisoned on the Ann and Mary ship bound for Jamaica in 1771, instructing that he be sold back into slavery. Somerset’s godparents applied for a writ of habeas corpus resulting in the trial brought before Lord Mansfield. Mansfield ruled in Somerset’s favor, granting him his freedom. He commented on the “odious nature” of slavery in his ruling:
The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.
Similarly, in the case of the Zong Massacre, Mansfield found the captain and crew of the British slave ship Zong guilty of the mass killing of 133 African slaves on November 29, 1781. When the ship ran low on potable water, the crew threw their cargo overboard to drown. When they reached port at Black River, Jamaica, the Zong made claims to their insurers for the cargo they lost. When the insurers refused to pay the claim, Mansfield found, in Gregson v. Gilbert (1781), the captain and crew at fault for the killing of the slaves. This case increased publicity for the abolitionist movement, representing a powerful symbol of the horrors of slavery in the Middle Passage, with Olaudah Equiano bringing news of the massacre to the attention of Granville Sharp, an English abolitionist, who later attempted to find the crew guilty of murder.
The Mansfield home in Bloomsbury Square was damaged in the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780. From that point forward, the Murray family moved to the Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath. At Kenwood House, the Murrays placed Dido in charge of the dairy and poultry yards and appointed her as Lord Mansfield’s assistant. When Thomas Hutchinson, former Loyalist governor of Massachusetts, visited Kenwood in 1779, he was shocked that Dido shared coffee with the family after dinner, also marveling at the close relationship between Dido and Lady Elizabeth. Accounts suggest that Dido also acted as Lady Elizabeth’s lady’s companion. This close relationship between Dido and Lady Elizabeth was captured in a double portrait by Johann Zoffany painted in the late 1770s (Zoffany is also attributed to a solo portrait of Dido painted circa 1778). Another visitor to Kenwood, James Beattie, a Scottish poet and philosopher, reflected in his Elements of Moral Science (1807) on his own visit, finding Dido charming and impressive. “But I happened, a few days after, to see his theory overturned, and my conjecture established by a negro girl about ten years old, who had been six years in England, and not only spoke with the articulation and accent of a native, but repeated some pieces of poetry, with a degree of elegance, which would have been admired in any English child of her years,” Beattie noted.
When John Lindsay passed away in 1788 he failed to leave his inheritance to Dido, instead leaving it to two other illegitimate children. Perhaps Lindsay assumed that the Mansfields would provide for Dido, which proved true when Lord Mansfield left Dido a lump sum of £500 and an annual income of £100 upon his death in 1793. Mansfield also confirmed Dido’s freedom in his will. On December 5, 1793, Dido married John Davinier in St. George’s Church in Hanover Square. Though little is known about Davinier, he is thought to have been a Frenchman working as the steward for a family in Mayfair, a very important position as he ran the entire estate for the family. Dido and her husband had at least three sons, with her twins, Charles and John, being baptized on May 8, 1795 and another son, William Thomas, being baptized on January 26, 1802. Dido died around age 43 in July 1804. Her life was memorialized in the 2013 film, Belle.
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Card, Jane. “The power of context: the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Lady Elizabeth Murray.” Teaching History 160 (Sept. 2015): 8-15.
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Minney, Sarah. “The Search for Dido.” History Today 55, no. 10 (Oct. 2005): 2-3
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Elizabeth Timbs and David Glovsky
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.