Hat tip: Angela Shaw
Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) was an illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman known as Belle. Her daughter Dido was sent to live in the household of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who was Lindsay’s uncle and thus Dido’s great-uncle.
Dido Elizabeth Belle was born around 1761. She was baptized in 1766 at St. George’s Church, Bloomsbury. Her father, John Lindsay, nephew of the Earl of Mansfield, was at the time a Royal Navy captain on HMS Trent, a warship based in the West Indies that took part in the capture of Havana from the Spanish in 1762. It has previously been suggested that her mother was an enslaved African on board one of the Spanish ships captured during this battle, but the dates are inconsistent and there is no reason why any of the Spanish ships (which were immobilised in the inner habour) would have had women on board when they were delivered up on the formal surrender of the fortress. Dido’s baptism record, however, shows that she was born while Lindsay was in the West Indies and that her mother’s name was Maria Belle.
Lindsay sent the child to his uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, who lived with his family at Kenwood House in Hampstead, which was then just outside London, England. Mansfield and his wife, who were childless, were already raising her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray after her mother’s death; Dido was about the same age as Elizabeth. It is possible that Mansfield took Dido in to be Elizabeth’s playmate and, later in life, her personal attendant (her role within the family as outlined below suggests that her standing was more that of a lady’s companion than a lady’s maid).
Dido spent some 30 years at Kenwood House. Her position was unusual because she was formally the daughter of a slave, and as such would have been considered a slave outside of Britain. But she was to some extent treated as a member of the family. Lord Mansfield himself resolved this paradox in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. When called on to judge the case of an escaped slave, Somersett’s Case, 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 decision was taken by abolitionists to mean that slavery was abolished in England, although his wording reserves judgment on this point, and he later said it was only to apply to the slave at issue in the case. Historians have since suggested that his personal experience influenced his decision.
Despite his revulsion for slavery, the social conventions of Mansfield’s household were discriminatory. Dido would not dine with the rest of the family, especially if they had guests, but joined the ladies for coffee afterwards in the drawing-room. As she grew older, she took responsibility for the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood, and she also helped Mansfield with his correspondence – an indication that she was fairly well educated. The running of the dairy and poultry yard would have been a typical occupation for ladies of the gentry, but helping her uncle with his correspondence was less usual, since this was normally done by a secretary or a male clerk. Dido also received an annual allowance of £30 10s, several times the wages of a domestic servant; by contrast, Elizabeth received around £100, but she was after all an heiress in her own right, and Dido, quite apart from her race, was illegitimate in a time and place when great social stigma usually accompanied such status.
A 1779 painting by an unknown painter (though previously attributed to Johann Zoffany) depicts her alongside Elizabeth, carrying exotic fruit and wearing a turban with a large feather. Dido is portrayed with extraordinary vivacity, leaving little doubt as to which of his sitters the painter had the greater rapport with. The painting, which hangs at Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland, is owned by the present Earl Mansfield and in 2007 was exhibited in Kenwood during an exhibition to run alongside events marking the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807.
When Dido’s father died without legitimate heirs in 1788 he left £1000 to a son, and £1000 to his other illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth Lindsay or Palmer (born c. 1765) who lived in Scotland, asking his wife Mary to take care of her. Mary Lindsay’s will does not mention Dido or Elizabeth Lindsay. Lord Mansfield left Dido £500 as an outright sum and a £100 annuity in his will, and officially confirmed her freedom.
After her uncle’s death in March 1793 Dido married John Davinier on 5 December 1793 at St. George’s, Hanover Square; both she and he were then residents of the parish. The Daviniers had three sons at least: twins Charles and John, also baptized at St George’s on 8 May 1795, and William Thomas, baptized there on the 26 January 1802.
Dido Belle Davinier died in 1804 and was buried in July that year at St George’s Fields, a burial-ground close to what is now Bayswater Road; in the 1970s, however, the site was redeveloped and her grave was moved. She was survived by her husband, who later remarried and had two more children.
- David Dabydeen, “The Black Figure in 18th-century Art”, BBC History.
- “The Girl in the Picture”, Inside Out: Abolition of the British Slave Trade special, BBC One, 2 March 2007.
- “Dido Elizabeth Belle and The First Earl of Mansfield”, Slavery and Justice Exhibition at Kenwood House, English Heritage.
- 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.
- Mixed Blessings Theatre Group.
- “African Cargo, An” Black Plays Archive, National Theatre.
- An African Cargo by Margaret Busby, Nitro.
- Dido Belle (2006) at IMDb.
- Belle (I) (2013) at IMDb.