Dido Elizabeth Belle, The Mixed-Race Aristocrat

You may have already seen the trailer back in October 2013 and have tried to find out more information on the little-known mixed-race aristocrat named Dido Elizabeth Belle. Perhaps like many mixed-race people, I found the announcement of this upcoming period drama too good to be true. Not only is there a movie on a real (not fictional) mixed-race person from the 18th Century (yes, there have been mixed children for centuries, millennia even!) portrayed by a mixed-race actress (Gugu Mbatha-Raw – half English, half African), but this woman was an aristocrat who helped bring about the abolition of slavery in Britain and the British Empire. This was a woman who not only represented two races and two social classes but, against all odds, lived a fairly comfortable life as a gentlewoman, an equal family member. How extraordinary!

With one week or a month to go until British writer and film director Amma Asante‘s Belle hits theatres in Canada and the US, I thought I would introduce all of you to this mysterious historical figure. Please note that due to the fact that I have no access to any historical documents, I’ve had to base my research on as many online biographies as I could find on Dido. If you do know more, please feel free to correct any discrepancies so that we can get our facts straight.

 

Dido Elizabeth Belle was born around 1761, possibly in June, to Maria Belle and Admiral Sir John Lindsay. Maria Belle was an African slave and Sir John Lindsay was a Royal Navy officer. Sources vary on where Dido was born, but Thomas Hutchinson, the Loyalist Governor of Massachusetts, recorded what Lord Mansfield had told him: ‘Sir Jno. 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.’ I would say that confirms that Dido was born in England. Dido was baptised on 20 November 1766 in London. Her baptism record only lists her mother’s name and status (African slave). I’m not 100% certain if this was the custom back then, but as an illegitimate child, Dido took her mother’s maiden name, Belle. (Was the father’s name omitted because he was an aristocrat and it would have been shameful?) When he had to return to the navy, Sir John Lindsay entrusted his five-year-old daughter to his uncle, William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield.

According to one source (read here), Maria Belle was given land and property in Florida. Why she did not raise her daughter or was ‘allowed’ to be near her is incomprehensible to me. Or did Maria die when Dido was five? Perhaps she did raise her daughter for the first five years of Dido’s life in England, if not elsewhere in the world. As for the father, it seems that Sir John Lindsay spent much of his time at sea or abroad until his death in 1788. He fathered another illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth Lindsay or Palmer, in Scotland in 1765 and later married Mary, daughter of Sir William Milner, in 1768 but the marriage resulted with no issue. We do not know how often he saw Dido after 1766, if at all. Unfortunately, these are the questions we might never have answered. I’d like to imagine that Dido had a happy early childhood with at least one of her birth parents.

Though Dido did not grow up with her birth parents, she grew up at Kenwood in Hampstead* (or at least since 1780) with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had also died and who was around the same age. The cousins were raised by their great-uncle who was the Lord Chief Justice, one of the most influential judges in England, and his wife. The girls were educated side by side and Dido was treated as an equal family member – at least to a certain extent. In some sources, Dido appears to have simply been a playmate and companion for her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, who was adopted by the Mansfields. From what I’ve read, I believe she was more than just a companion. Both were given an allowance and gifts, albeit Dido’s allowance was in between her cousin’s and that of a servant, perhaps due to the fact that she was illegitimate. It does not appear that her uncle gave her less due to racial prejudice as it was noted by Hutchinson that Lord Mansfield was very fond of Dido. Dido may not have been allowed to dine in front of company (was this to protect her from the shocked and dirty looks, which could upset her appetite? Was she not allowed to dine in company due to the social rules on illegitimate children?), but she would join the women after dinner and go on walks with them in the garden. Hutchinson also noted that she and Lady Elizabeth Murray linked arms during these walks.

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In 1779, a portrait was commissioned of Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, painted by Johann Zoffany. In this painting, we see two young women (aged 16-18) dressed in the finest silk gowns out in the garden. The painting almost looks like a photograph, capturing the ladies as they are in the middle of ‘running off’ somewhere. Dido’s bent left knee and her leaning forward, as well as her sheer gold-embroidered shawl flowing behind her, indicate that she is on the move. Ladz Elizabeth holds on to Dido’s elbow as if she is following her. This seems a little unusual to me as both women are dressed in their finest gowns. (I suppose they had to, to emphasise their status. I don’t know how they posed for the painting. Were they outdoors or indoors? Did Dido have to pose like she was running?) Lady Elizabeth is wearing what appears to be a robe à l’anglaise with what looks like a sheer fabric draped over the skirts. Dido, on the other hand, has a more ‘exotic’ outfit. She is wearing a flattering long-sleeved silk dress (I believe it’s called a gaulle?) that was made popular by the Queen of fashion and France, Marie Antoinette, in the 1780’s. This could imply that not only was Dido dressed à la mode, she represented how modern the Mansfield family was. What is interesting to me is that Dido is wearing a silk turban with a[n ostrich] feather. The turban, apparently, was not introduced to English fashion until the 1790’s. We do see that Marie Antoinette has at least four paintings of her in different turbans with feathers all painted in the 1780’s. As I have very limited fashion history knowledge, I can only guess that the turban as women’s headdress was first made popular in France. Therefore, we can assume that based on Dido’s outfit, she was not only depicted as exotic but as fashion forward (or at least that’s how I see it). She was certainly not wearing hand-me-downs or last season’s fashion. The bowl of fruit, on the other hand, may hint at her background through her mother. After all, why is Dido holding the bowl of fruit and Lady Elizabeth carrying a book? Or, you could believe, like one author, that this was a masquerade dress (perhaps it was) and Dido was made to look nothing more than an exotic servant or companion to Lady Elizabeth. Yet I can’t imagine Lord Mansfield approving such a painting that would belittle Dido. Finally, Dido points her finger to her cheek, which could imply many things:

  • They are frolicking and Dido, being the eldest, leads the way
  • There is an emphasis on Dido’s skin colour, therefore her background, and her ‘surprising privilege’ to be shown as an equal in the painting
  • Or it could be as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa. There is more to Dido than meets the eye.

Dido was financially secure with the Mansfield family and even played a role in running the household. Lord Mansfield tasked her with handling his correspondence – usually reserved for educated males, mind you – and supervising the poultry and dairy yards. The latter, though it sounds unappealing and almost degrading, was actually quite common for many women of the time period to perform.

Dido married John Davinier on 5 December 1793, after the death of Lord Mansfield. In his will, Lord Mansfield left her a lump sum of £500, as well as £100 annuity. Lady Margery (or Marjorie?) Murray, possibly Lord Mansfield’s sister, also left her £100. Furthermore, Lord Mansfield confirmed her freedom. This is especially important as slavery had not yet been abolished in Britain. I wonder if Dido had to wait because Lord Mansfield offered her [more] protection whilst he was alive or if she felt indebted to him for all he had done for her. Dido’s father had not left her anything in his will and I suspect perhaps he felt that her life with the Mansfield family would have been the most he could have given her for her best chance at life.

The Daviniers went on to have at least three sons: twins Charles and John in 1795, and William in 1802. Sadly, Dido died two years later at the age of 43 and was buried in the cemetery of the church in which she was married. Of what cause, I could not find any sources that had any more details. I know the life expectancy was not very high in the 18th and 19th centuries, but even 43 seems too young. I wonder how her sons experienced in their childhood and their adulthood. What was their relationship like with their new stepmother and half-siblings? We know only that Dido’s line continued on until 1975, when the last known relation, a married but childless South African, passed away. This great-great-grandson was identified as ‘White’ during the Apartheid.

It is unfortunate that slavery had not been abolished during Dido’s time on earth, though had she lived longer, she may have lived to see the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 passed. Nevertheless, her role in Lord Mansfield’s life was certainly one step towards the right direction.

 

I hope you have enjoyed reading about the fascinating life that Dido lived. I’m sure we are all looking forward to the movie Belle, which premieres on 2* May 2014 in select theatres in the US, 9-23 May in Canada, and 13 June 2014 in the UK.

Sources:

 My questions on Dido Belle and the times she lived in:

  • How did the servants feel about serving Dido?
  • What was the relationship between Elizabeth and Dido like? Did they see each other often after they were both married?
  • What was life like for illegitimate children of aristocrats, particularly girls?
  • How much did illegitimate children usually inherit? We know that Sir John Lindsay left £1000 to each of his illegitimate children except Dido. Was this because she was luckiest to be raised by Lord Mansfield?

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