Belle: a new kind of English rose

With London-born Ghanaian director Amma Asante screening her film ‘Belle‘ this month (June 2014), I thought it was high time I checked out what all the drama was about. I had come across Dido Elizabeth Belle’s story in 18th century England, before and had seen the famous picture of her with her Caucasian cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. But upon reading about her life, I realised there was so much I didn’t know.

Belle and her cousin Elizabeth

In short, Dido (a nickname from her English family) was the product of a union between Admiral Sir John Lindsay who, according to www.hampsteadheath.net, captured a Spanish ship on which Belle’s African mum Maria Belle was held on.

As Maria was a woman in bondage, it is unlikely that this union was consensual and it appears that she had no claim to her daughter apart from naming her.

From what history suggests, Dido’s father didn’t want to/ was not able to care for her. As a result, she was brought from the West Indies (possibly Jamaica) and raised by her childless great uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and  Lord Chief Justice of England and his wife Lady Elizabeth.

Dido lived in Hampstead at Kenwood House and was baptised in 1766 at the age of six. She remained at Kenwood until her marriage to Frenchman John Davinier in her early 30s – months after her great uncle died.

Duality

I think the story of her life is compelling because it embodies so many contradictions. She was the daughter of an enslaved woman who lived at a time when anyone of colour living in the West would have been in bondage.

And yet although she was free in name and part of aristocratic stock, there is some uncertainty over her status within the Mansfield household.

Some reports suggest that she was brought to England as a playmate for Elizabeth who was of a similar age. The Zoffany-inspired painting (above) depicts Dido as almost an equal to her cousin (her fine clothes, position in the painting in relation to Elizabeth, and her strong posture). This all came at a time when a Black person’s status within the world order had been reduced to that of an accessory within Western society.

We are told Belle was given a stipend just like her cousin Elizabeth (who was being raised by Lord Mansfield following the death of her mother). But Elizabeth’s £100 was around three times more than what Dido received. Historians have suggested that that was because Elizabeth was an heiress and Dido was not.

Father figure

I can find no accounts of her father coming to see or claim her. It is reported that upon his death, he did not leave her anything in his will. He did, however, leave money for an illegitimate son and a daughter named Elizabeth Lindsay who lived in Scotland. Some reports I have read suggest that Elizabeth Lindsay and Dido were one and the same. And I thought it was telling that – from what I have read – Dido was never referred to by her father’s name – only her mother’s.

During her life at Kenwood House, it is also reported that at times, Dido did not dine with the rest of the family but joined them for coffee afterwards. And this is a fact that Thomas Hutchinson – who visited the house on 17 July 1774 – sought to document in his journal. It is not clear if this arrangement was because of the reaction seeing Belle may have set off with some guests or because she was considered to be lower in status.

Powerful woman

On the flip side, it seems that Dido’s influence on the house ran deep. She acted as Lord Mansfield’s amanuensis (he dictated letters to her which she wrote) on at least one occasion, according to thebrimstonebutterfly.blogspot.co.uk. So she was not only literate but had the trust of her great uncle in important affairs.

She also managed Mansfield’s poultry and milk yard. One assessment of this suggests that she had more of a superintendent role and was not just a glorified servant.  And when Dido was 11 years old, Lord Mansfield ruled in the famous Somerset case that meant that slave owners could not remove their slaves from England by force to the often harsher conditions in the Caribbean.

Although the ruling did not result in an end to slavery, it did contribute to the abolitionist movement. Writers on the subject of Dido have suggested that her presence in the house may have played a significant part.

Influence

Two other notable points that may suggest Belle had some standing within the house was that Lord Mansfield made provision in his will that her freedom was documented in writing.

It is also suggested by Asante that when the American Hutchinson visited Mansfield, it was with the intention of lobbying him to rule in favour of the slave owner in the infamous Zong case. The case in dispute involved the murder of enslaved Africans that were thrown overboard as unwanted cargo in exchange for insurance.

After Kenwood

When Dido leaves her family home, she seems to fade from existence. There is no real information about her life until she dies in her early 40s. She marries her husband – a former gentleman’s steward at Kenwood House – at St George’s, Hanover Square in London where Dido’s three sons (twins Charles and John and a third son William Thomas) were also christened.

But her lineage ends with great great grandson Harold Davinier who died in apartheid South Africa in 1975. The irony is that Harold was classed as white under the racist regime even though he was from African stock.

Incidentally, the actress who plays Belle – Gugulethu Mbatha-Raw – has an even closer connection to the character than just depicting her life. As with Harold, she also has South African heritage and is of mixed parentage. Her mother is English and her father is South African.

Dido died in July 1804 around the age of 43. Her earthly remains were buried at St George’s Fields near the present-day Bayswater Road. By Kirsty Osei-Bempong

For more blogs like this, check these:

podcast: Tudor England’s African connections with historian Onyeka

Tudor England II: England’s African connections

Gold Coast: a lucid look into Denmark’s colonial past 

My hero: the slave

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