Exploring mixed race experiences
Born in June 1761 Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of 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. Dido was raised by Lord Mansfield and his wife at Kenwood House in Hampstead, along with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died. Accounts differ as to whether Dido was born in England or the West Indies, an American visitor to Kenwood House noted in his diary that Lindsay had taken Maria Belle prisoner from a Spanish vessel and returned with her to England where Maria gave birth to Dido. In 1772 Lord Mansfield made the Somerset ruling which was interpreted (wrongly) by many enslaved Africans to mean that slavery had no legal basis in England, rather the decision meant that no slave could be forcibly removed from Britain and sold into slavery.
The above portrait of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth is unusual for its time as Dido’s beauty is portrayed and it gives a sense of her individual personality. At the time it was common for black people to placed in subservient positions kneeling to the side of their white masters, or in the background with blank or caricatured expressions.
There is evidence that Dido was not treated as a full and equal family member, dining separately from the family when they had guests, only joining the women for coffee after the meal. 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.”
In 1779 following a dinner at Kenwood House, American Thomas Hutchinson, ex Governor of Massachusetts, wrote in his diary,
“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. She is neither handsome nor genteel – pert enough. I knew her history before, buyt my Lord mentioned it again. Sir John Lindsay having taken her mother prisoner in a Spanish vessel, brought her to England where she was 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 showing fondness for her – I dare not day criminal.
A few years ago there was a cause before his Lordship bro’t by a Black for recovery of his liberty. A Jamaica planter being asked what judgement his Ldship would give? “No doubt” he answered “He will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family.”
She is a sort of Superintendant over the dairy, poultry yard, etc, which we visited. And she was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that, and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said.”
As well as supervising the poultry and dairy yard, typical genteel hobbies for a lady, Dido acted as secretary to Lord Mansfield in his later years writing out letters on his behalf.
It is not certain what Dido’s legal status was in her early life, as in his will Lord Mansfield stated “I confirm to Dido Elizabeth Belle her freedom.” On her father’s death in 1788 the London Chronicle reported that,
“…he has died, we believe, without any legitimate issue but has left one natural daughter, a Mulatto who has been brought up in Lord Mansfeld’s family almost from her infancy…”
Dido married John Davinier, a gentleman steward, in 1793 at St George’s, Hanover Square together 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 July 1804, at 43 years of age and was buried in St George’s Fields. In the 1970’s the burial ground was deconsecrated and sold off by the church to developers. Dido’s body was exhumed and reburied as were the other bodies buried there.
The Best of the visual Web, sifted, sorted and summarized