Belle: A Lesson About British Slavery Buried in a Love Story

It’s the true story of a biracial woman who may have helped bring about the end of slavery in Britain.

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Screenshot from Belle trailer

Fox Searchlight Pictures   

Fresh off the Oscar success of 12 Years a Slave, another slavery-themed, major motion picture is set to hit theaters next month. For now you’ll just have to take my word that it’s about slavery, because if you watch the trailer for Belle, you might think it is strictly a love story. You wouldn’t know that the movie is actually about a woman many believe had a role in the ending of slavery in Britain.   

Her name was Dido Elizabeth Belle. Her mother was an enslaved African, and her father was an officer in the British Royal Navy. (The true nature of and the circumstances surrounding their relationship are unclear.) Belle was spared a life in slavery. She was taken from her mother to live in the home of her aristocratic great-uncle, where, even as an illegitimate child, she was afforded the privileged life that came with her father’s bloodline. But because she was also biracial/black, she was denied full societal and familial acceptance. As the character sums it up in the movie, “How may I be too high in rank to dine with the servants but too low to dine with my family?” 

The filmmakers take some liberties with parts of her story. Belle’s love affair with a white man, John Davinier, is given the dramatic Hollywood treatment and plays prominently in the movie, but the real-life Belle did marry Davinier. Her family circumstances are also historically accurate, including that her great-uncle, the man who raised her, was the first earl of Mansfield. He served as lord chief justice of England in the late 18th century and presided over two of the most significant legal cases during the transatlantic slave trade that eventually led to the abolition of slavery in Britain. And one of the cases, Gregson v. Gilbert, serves as the backdrop for the movie.

The Zong Massacre was at the heart of Gregson vs. Gilbert. The Zong slave ship was headed from West Africa to Jamaica in 1781 when the captain and crew threw 133 slaves overboard to their deaths, a practice not uncommon during the slave trade. The owners of the Zong later said that because of illness and a shortage of fresh water, it was necessary to dump “cargo” to save those remaining on the ship. English law at the time allowed the ship’s owners to file an insurance claim if they threw slaves overboard to save the ship, but not if the slaves died of natural causes.

The Zong’s owners filed a claim, but the insurers refused to pay after it came to light that the ship probably wasn’t short on water. In court, Lord Mansfield ruled in favor of the insurers, but he stopped short of saying murder had been committed. Still, the Zong case brought to light the horrors of the slave trade for the British public and spurred the movement to end it.    

Mansfield also presided over the earlier landmark Somerset case, in which the legality of slavery in Britain was questioned. But that case is not a part of the Belle movie plot. James Somerset was a slave brought from Boston to England, where he escaped. He then challenged his master for his freedom on the basis of English common law. In his decision, Mansfield made his view on slavery pretty clear:   

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 it’s force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself, from whence it was created, is erased from memory: It is 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; and therefore the black must be discharged.

Somerset was freed. Though Mansfield could have gone further in his decisions, both laid legal groundwork for the abolitionist movement and eventually led to the slave trade being outlawed in Britain in 1807 and slavery being abolished in the British Empire in 1833. And as the filmmakers and many historians argue, Dido Elizabeth Belle must have had an impact on Lord Mansfield’s thinking.  He didn’t have children of his own and had afforded Belle what was an unheard-of degree of privilege and status for an illegitimate black child at the time.   

Just how much influence she had, we will never know, but director Amma Asante tells me it’s unlikely that Mansfield’s affinity for Belle played no role in how he viewed slavery. I spent time with Asante and Belle star Gugu Mbatha-Raw during a screening of the movie at the United Nations last week. Both believe that after 12 Years, the viewing public is as ready as ever to see movies about these events in history.

The U.N. jumped at the chance to include the movie in its activities marking the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The annual event aims to “honor and remember those who suffered and died at the hands of the brutal slavery system.”