Dido Elizabeth Belle
In light of my recent post about why representation matters I am very excited to be writing about this lady today. Mostly because they are making a movie about her:
I am so excited to see such a lush film portraying such an interesting topic. I have thought a lot about this over the past couple of months whenever I see posts about how white-washed history has become, and it’s true. I bet if you had asked me in high school if there were people of color in Europe in the 1800’s I would have said no. I understand that History with a capital “H” is huge and hard to encapsulate so that our minds can absorb enough of it to roll out of school “educated.” However, the older I get the more I can’t help but wonder how educated we really are about where we come from and how we have come to be where we are today.
Just the sheer amount of research that I do for these posts showcases how often I am so incredibly shocked by the accomplishments of so many of these women, and I lament that I didn’t learn about them sooner or in a more formal setting. So since we are talking about representation I am pleased to see this film coming out.
Now, back to learn about this wonderful woman who lived a fascinating life.
Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in either 1761 or 1763 (her birthday kind of fluctuates) to Sir John Lindsay, a British Navy captain on HMS Trent and an African woman called Maria Belle. John Lindsay was the nephew of William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice, England’s most powerful judge. 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.
There is evidence that Dido was not treated as a full and equal family member, dining separately from the family when they had guests, and allowed to join the women for coffee only after meals. 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.”
While there is no direct evidence, it is possible that Dido’s presence strongly influenced Mansfield and his rulings regarding slavery in England at the time. In 1772, when Belle was around 11, Mansfield 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 prior to these rulings had been known as somewhat of a moderate, so without some influence the decisions seem to come out of nowhere. It is widely speculated that his care and love of his niece is what prompted these decisions for his rulings.
Dido lived at Kenwood for 30 years, and only left shortly after Mansfield’s passing. Along with her inheritance, he strictly reiterated that she was a free woman, which was a pretty big deal for the time, making sure that after he was gone he could still protect her. In 1793 Dido married John Danvinier (though the date again might be wrong), 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 1804 at the age of 43.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the London actress who will be portraying Dido in the upcoming film, was particularly excited to address the media’s short comings when it comes to addressing representation in historical fiction:
“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. 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.”
I can’t tell you how excited I am for this film. I love period films so much, and I am particularly excited to see this period from a completely new and different, angle. In the meantime if you want some more information you should check out the links below, and this presentation from the Kenwood House exhibit in England.
For more information: