Dido Elizabeth Belle
Dido Elizabeth Belle
Painting of Belle (cropped), David Martin
|Died||July 1804 (aged c. 42)|
|Resting place||St George's Fields, Westminster (1804–1970s)|
John Davinier (m. 1793)
Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761 – July 1804) was born into slavery as the natural daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the British West Indies, and Sir John Lindsay, a British career naval officer who was stationed there. He was later knighted and promoted to admiral. Lindsay took Belle with him when he returned to England in 1765, entrusting her raising to his uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and his wife Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Mansfield. The Murrays educated Belle, bringing her up as a free gentlewoman at their Kenwood House, together with another great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died. Lady Elizabeth and Belle were second cousins. Belle lived there for 30 years. In his will of 1793, Lord Mansfield confirmed her freedom and provided an outright sum and an annuity to her, making her an heiress.
In these years, her great-uncle, in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice, ruled in two significant slavery cases, finding in 1772 that slavery had no precedent in common law in England, and had never been authorised under positive law. This ruling was misinterpreted as presaging the formal end of slavery in Britain, but in fact slavery continued to be legal in the country until the 1830s. In the Zong massacre, a case related to the slave trade, Murray narrowly ruled that the owners of the ship were not due insurance payments for the loss of slaves they had thrown overboard during a voyage, because their killing appeared to be related to errors by the officers.
Dido Elizabeth Belle was born into slavery in 1761 in the British West Indies to an enslaved African woman known as Maria Belle. (Her name was spelled as Maria Bell in her daughter's baptism record.) Her father was 24-year-old Sir John Lindsay, a member of the Lindsay family of Evelix branch of the Clan Lindsay and a descendant of the Clan Murray, who was a career naval officer and then captain of the British warship HMS Trent, based in the West Indies. He was the son of Sir Alexander Lindsay, 3rd Baronet and his wife Amelia, daughter of David Murray, 5th Viscount Stormont. Lindsay is thought to have found Maria Belle held as a slave on a Spanish ship which his forces captured in the Caribbean; he appears to have taken her as his concubine (see plaçage). Lindsay returned to London after the war in 1765 with his young daughter, Dido Belle. When they arrived in England he took her to Kenwood House just outside the city, the home of his uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and his wife Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Mansfield. Belle was baptised as Dido Elizabeth Belle in 1766 at St. George's, Bloomsbury. The Murray family raised Belle as an educated woman along with their niece and Dido's cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died. However, Belle remained a slave until Mansfield finally granted her freedom from slavery in his will in 1793.
A contemporary obituary of Sir John Lindsay, who had eventually been promoted to admiral, acknowledged that he was the father of Dido Belle, and described her: "[H]e has died, we believe, without any legitimate issue but has left one natural daughter, a Mulatta who has been brought up in Lord Mansfield's family almost from her infancy and whose amiable disposition and accomplishments have gained her the highest respect from all his Lordship's relations and visitants." At one time, historians thought her mother was an African slave on a ship captured by Lindsay's warship during the Battle of Havana (1762), but this specific date is unlikely, as Dido was born in 1761, the previous year.
At Kenwood House
The Earl and Countess of Mansfield lived at Kenwood House in Hampstead, just outside the City of London. Childless, they were already raising their motherless great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, born in 1760. It is possible that the Mansfields took Belle in to be Lady Elizabeth's playmate and, later in life, her personal attendant. Her role within the family suggests that she became more that of a lady's companion than a lady's maid.
At Kenwood house, "Belle was treated like the rest of the family when she was in company with only the family," says Mansfield. Not only was Belle the black, illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, she was also a slave until Mansfield died. Lord Mansfield had a close relationship with Belle; he was fond of her and she often helped him, later working as his secretary.
Belle lived at Kenwood House for 31 years. Her position was unusual because she was born into slavery according to colonial law. Lord and Lady Mansfield to some extent treated her and brought her up as a member of the Murray family. As she grew older, she often assisted Mansfield by taking dictation of his letters, which showed she had been educated.
One of Mansfield's friends, American Thomas Hutchinson, a former governor of Massachusetts who as a Loyalist had moved to London, recalled in his personal diary that Belle "was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that, and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said". He described her as "neither handsome nor genteel – pert enough". He also talks about his first impressions of her at Lord Mansfield's house, saying "A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies, 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. I knew her history before, but my Lord mentioned it again. Sir Lindsay, having taken her mother prisoner in a Spanish vessel, brought her to England, where she delivered of this girl, of which she was then with child, 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 shewing a fondness for her – I dare say not criminal".
A reference to Belle also appears briefly in volume II of James Beattie's Elements of Moral Science. Beattie refers to her intelligence, saying "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." Following this is a footnote which states, "She was in Lord Mansfield's family ; and at his desire, and in his presence, repeated those pieces of poetry to me. She was called Dido, and I believe is still alive." This and the quotations from Thomas Hutchinson are some of the few direct references to Dido found in primary source material.
Lord Mansfield ruled on a related matter of the status of slaves in England in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. When called on in 1772 to judge Somerset v Stewart, the case of an escaped slave whose owner wanted to send him back to the West Indies for sale, 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 ruling that slavery did not exist in common law and had never been introduced by positive law was taken by abolitionists to mean that slavery was abolished in England. His ruling was narrow and reserved judgment on this point, saying only that the slave's owner had no right to remove Somerset from England against his will. Mansfield later said his decision was intended only to apply to the slave at issue in the case. At the time, it was suggested that Mansfield's personal experience with raising Dido Belle influenced his decision. Thomas Hutchinson later recalled a comment by a slave-owner: "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 social conventions of Mansfield's household are somewhat unclear. When the Mansfields were entertaining, Belle did not eat with the guests. A 2007 exhibit at Kenwood suggests that she was treated as "a loved but poor relation", and therefore did not always dine with guests, as was reported by Thomas Hutchinson. He said Belle joined the ladies afterwards for coffee in the drawing-room. In 2014, author Paula Byrne wrote that Belle's exclusion from this particular dinner was pragmatic rather than the custom. She notes that other aspects of Belle's life, such as being given expensive medical treatments and luxurious bedroom furnishings, were evidence of her position as Lady Elizabeth's equal at Kenwood.
As Belle grew older, she took on the responsibility of managing the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood. This was a typical occupation for ladies of the gentry, but helping her uncle with his correspondence was less usual. This was normally done by a male secretary or a clerk. Belle was given an annual allowance of £30 10s, several times the wages of a domestic worker. By contrast, Lady Elizabeth received around £100, but she was a beneficiary in her own right through her mother's family. Belle, quite apart from her race, was illegitimate, in a time and place when great social stigma usually accompanied such status.
Belle's father died in 1788 without legitimate heirs, bequeathing £1000 to be shared by his "reputed children", John and Elizabeth Lindsay (as noted in his will). Historian Gene Adams believed this suggested that Lindsay referred to his daughter as Elizabeth, and she may have been named Dido by his uncle and aunt after they took charge of the girl. Another source says that there was another natural daughter, known as Elizabeth Palmer (born c. 1765), who lived in Scotland.
In his will written in 1783, Lord Mansfield officially granted Belle her freedom from slavery. The fact that Mansfield granted Belle her freedom in his will indicated that he also believed that his ruling did not abolish slavery in England. To secure her future, he also bequeathed her with £500 as an outright sum and a £100 annuity, which she received after his death in 1793. In 1799 Belle also inherited £100 from Lady Margery Murray, one of two female relatives who had come to live with and help care for the Murrays in their later years.
William Murray left his niece Elizabeth Murray £10,000. Her father was in line to inherit his father's title and more money.
After her great-uncle's death in March 1793, which resulted in her being granted freedom from slavery, Belle married John Davinier, a Frenchman who worked as a gentleman's steward, on 5 December 1793 at St George's, Hanover Square. They were both then residents of the parish. The Daviniers had at least three sons: twins Charles and John, both baptised at St George's on 8 May 1795; and William Thomas, baptised there on 26 January 1802.
Belle died in 1805 at the age of 43, and was interred in July of that year at St George's Fields, Westminster, a burial-ground close to what is now Bayswater Road. In the 1970s, the site was redeveloped and her grave was moved. Her husband later remarried and had two more children with his second wife.
Two of Belle's sons, William Thomas and Charles, were employed by the East India Company; William in England and Charles in India.
Charles Davinier(e) served with the Madras Army (one of the territorial armies of the East India Company (HEIC), preceding the British Indian Army). In 1810, he was listed as a lieutenant in the 15th Native Infantry (but was surely an ensign before, because in the HEIC, purchasing of commissions was not practised).  In August 1836, he married Hannah Nash, youngest daughter of J. Nash, Esquire, of Kensington, at Kensington Church. At this time, he held the rank of captain in the 30th Native Infantry (that was formed from the 2nd Battalion, 15th Native Infantry in 1824). In August 1837, Captain Charles Davinier was relieved of his former duty and was "to have charge of Infantry recruits" in the headquarters at Fort St. George. He retired from service in 1847, still being with the 30th Native Infantry. After his retirement he lived with his wife, children, and servants at Lansdowne Villas in Notting Hill, where he died on 24 January 1873.
William Thomas Davinier married a widow, Fanny Graham, and had a daughter, Emily. Emily died unmarried in 1870, several years after the death of her parents.
Belle's last known descendant, her great-great-grandson Harold Davinier, died childless in South Africa in 1975.
Representation in media
The family commissioned a painting of Dido and Elizabeth. Completed in 1779, it was formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany but, following research by the BBC-TV program Fake or Fortune?, it has now been verified by the Scottish National Gallery as a painting in the Zoffany style by the Scottish portraitist David Martin. It is "unique in British art of the 18th century in depicting a black woman and a white woman as near equals". It shows Dido alongside and slightly behind her cousin Elizabeth, carrying exotic fruit and wearing a turban with a large ostrich feather. Dido is portrayed with great vivacity, while her cousin appears more sedate and formal; both women wear gowns reflecting their high social status. They are standing together on the grounds of Kenwood and her cousin's hand lies gently upon Dido's arm, suggesting affection and the possibility that they are walking the grounds together. Their positioning in the painting may hint to differences in their race: Elizabeth stands holding a book while Dido holds a plate of fruit, as if on her way to serve others. However, Dido's gown and accessories demonstrate an expensive, fashion-conscious style, contrasting with Elizabeth's more traditional dress.
The painting is owned by the present Earl of Mansfield and housed at Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland. In 2007, it was exhibited in Kenwood House, together with more information about Belle, during an exhibition marking the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807.
Film, music, plays
- Dido Belle (2006), a film by Jason Young, was written as a short period drama titled Kenwood House. It was workshopped at Battersea Arts Centre on 21 June 2006 as part of the Battersea Writers' Group script development programme.
- Shirley J. Thompson's operatic trilogy, Spirit Songs – including Spirit of the Middle Passage about Dido Elizabeth Belle, with Abigail Kelly in the role – was performed with the Philharmonia Orchestra at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, in March 2007 as part of the 200-year commemoration of the act abolishing the international slave trade.
- Let Justice Be Done, a 2008 play by Mixed Blessings Theatre Group, explores the influence that Belle might have had on her great-uncle's Somersett Ruling of 1772.
- An African Cargo by Margaret Busby, a play staged by Nitro (Black Theatre Co-operative) at Greenwich Theatre, 2007, in commemoration of the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, deals with a landmark 1783 trial presided over by Lord Mansfield at the Guildhall, resulting from the Zong massacre. The character of Dido Belle expresses to the audience feelings of horror and injustice for the murder of the slaves on the ship.
- Belle (2013), a feature film directed by Amma Asante, explores Dido's life as the multiracial natural daughter of an aristocrat in 18th-century England, who became an heiress but occupied an ambiguous social position. The film is based on the 1779 painting of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth, formerly thought to be by Zoffany. The film stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido and Tom Wilkinson as her guardian Lord Mansfield.
- Fern Meets Dido (2018), A musical written by Evadne Bygrave based on the book Fern and Kate Meet Dido Elizabeth Belle by David Gleave. The story of a modern day young girl of mixed heritage, disaffected at school and uncertain about her identity. On a school trip to Kenwood House, something magical happens, and she goes back in time and meets Dido.
- Family Likeness, a 2013 novel by Caitlin Davies, was inspired in part by the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle.
- Author Paula Byrne was commissioned to write Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle (2014) as a tie-in to the 2013 film Belle. It was published as an audiobook when the movie opened in the United States.
- Zadie Smith mentions the story of Belle in her 2016 novel Swing Time when the narrator goes to Kenwood House and overhears a tour guide talking about her.
- The short story anthology The woman who gave birth to rabbits, by Emma Donoghue, contains a short story called "Dido", about Dido Elizabeth Belle.
- "Slavery and Justice at Kenwood House, Part 1" (PDF). Historic England. Retrieved 12 June 2015.
- Simon Schama, Rough Crossings (London: BBC Books, 2005), pp. 51–61.
- Slavery and Justice Exhibition at Kenwood House, Historic England. Retrieved 12 June 2015.
- Adams, Gene (1984). "Dido Elizabeth Belle/ A Black Girl at Kenwood/ an account of a protegée of the 1st Lord Mansfield" (PDF). Camden History Review: 10–14. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
- Michael Siva, Why did Black Londoners not join the Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme 1783-1815? London: Open University, 2014), p. 4.
- Urquhart, Frank. "Portrait of woman who inspired "Belle" to be shown". The Scotsman. Retrieved 17 February 2014.
- Michael Siva, Why did Black Londoners not join the Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme 1783-1815? London: Open University, 2014), p. 4.
- Nisha Lilia Diu, "Dido Belle: Britain’s first black aristocrat", The Telegraph, 6 June 2014.
- Hutchinson, Thomas; Hutchinson, Peter Orlando (1884). The diary and letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson : Captain-general and Governor-in-chief of His late Majesty's province of Massachusetts Bay in North America ... compiled from the original documents still remaining in the possession of his descendants. Cornell University Library. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin.
- Beattie, James (1807). Elements of moral science. University of California Libraries. Edinburgh : Printed [by Mundell, Doig, and Stevenson] for W. Creech and T. Cadell and W. Davies, London.
- Start the Week, BBC Radio 4, 14 April 2014.
- Michael Siva, Why did Black Londoners not join the Sierra Leone Resettlement Scheme 1783-1815? (London: Open University, 2014), p. 4.
- "Dido Elizabeth Belle and The First Earl of Mansfield", Slavery and Justice Exhibition at Kenwood House, Historic England.
- Public Record Office, Catalogue reference: PROB 11/1324/97: 'Will of The Right Honorable, Lady Margery Murray, Spinster of Twickenham , Middlesex':"...one hundred pounds to Dido Elizabeth Belle, as a token of my regard..." The will was first drafted in 1793 but in a codicil dated 1796 Lady Margery specified that the bequest of £100 to Dido "she being now married to Mr. Davinier" was to be "for her separate use and at her disposal".
- Reyahn King, "Belle, Dido Elizabeth (1761?–1804)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, October 2007.
- Sarah Minney, "The Search for Dido", History Today 55, October 2005.
- Officers-List, A list of the officers of the army, ordnance and medical departments, serving under the presidency of Fort St. George. Presidency of Madras Army. 1822. pp. 75, 114. Retrieved 11 September 2014.
- The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and Its Dependencies. London: archive org. 1820. p. 52 (Marriages). Retrieved 10 September 2014.
- Parbury's Oriental Herald and Colonial Intelligencer. London: archive.org. 1837. pp. 59 & 117 (Appointments...Changes etc.: Military). Retrieved 11 September 2014.
- "Madras Service Army List, 1847 – 1859, Sig. IOR/L/MIL/11/61/48". National Archives. Retrieved 11 September 2014.
- UK Government website, (Index to) Wills and Probate 1858-1996. The probate record index describes him as "Charles Davinière...Lieutenant Colonel in Her Majesty's Army" and names his widow Hannah as his executrix.
- "The Girl in the Picture", Inside Out: Abolition of the British Slave Trade special, BBC One, 2 March 2007.
- "A Double Whodunnit". Fake or Fortune?. BBC. Retrieved 2019-02-05.
- Maria Puente (5 May 2014). "Taking a few liberties with the real story of 'Belle'". USA Today. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
- Biography, Abigail Kelly Soprano.
- Mixed Blessings Theatre Group.
- "African Cargo, An | By Margaret Busby", Black Plays Archive, Royal National Theatre.
- Colette Lebrasse, "Say It Loud" Archived 14 July 2014 at the Wayback Machine (review of An African Cargo), 1 September 2007, Nitro Music Theatre website.
- "Guildhall, Gresham Street", London: Centre of the Slave Trade, Historic England.
- "The Guildhall", Museum of London.
- Felix Cross, "Belle: An Unexpected Journey" Archived 17 April 2015 at the Wayback Machine, Nitro, 13 June 2014.
- Caitlin Davies, Family Likeness (published by Hutchinson, 2013; Windmill, 2014). Caitlin Davies website.
- Paula Byrne, Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle, Harper Audiobooks, 2014. Retrieved 28 June 2014.
- Slavery And Justice: Lord Mansfield And Dido Belle At Kenwood, Untold London, 2007
- Slavery and Justice exhibition at Kenwood House, on Mansfield and Dido.
- Historic England leaflet, Slavery and Justice: the legacies of Dido Belle and Lord Mansfield, Part 1, Part 2
- Paula Byrne, Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle, Harper Collins, 2014. ISBN 9780007542727
- "Inside Out: Abolition of the British Slave Trade special", BBC London, 24 September 2014
- Article on discovering Dido, in Hampstead Matters, February 2014