Who Was the Real Dido Elizabeth Belle?

100 Amazing Facts about the Negro: What historical records say about the mixed-race heroine of a new film.

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Belle was not the only “sister” in England. By the end of the 18th century, that country’s black population was estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000. According to the English Heritage website, “Not all were slaves or servants. Black people worked as sailors, tradespeople of all kinds and in some cases as businessmen or musicians. Black writers played a role in the anti-slavery movement in England and famous activists like Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano were pivotal to the movement in speaking and writing from their personal experience of the horrors of the trade.” Others flowed in as former slaves who had taken up arms for the British king against the American patriots in exchange for their freedom. Among the more prominent black Britons of the era were violinist Joseph Emidy, businessman Cesar Picton and George Africanus, an entrepreneur who launched the employment agency the Africanus Register of Servants.

Kenwood House

Belle’s fate would unfold at Kenwood House in Hampstead, London, the home of William Murray since 1754. Murray (aka Lord Mansfield) was John Lindsay’s uncle, which made Belle his great-niece. Whatever his and Lady Mansfield’s initial reaction to their nephew’s request, they, childless, agreed to raise Belle. She was joined by her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825), daughter of David Murray, another of Lord Mansfield’s nephews who would later become the Second Earl of Mansfield. Both had lost their mothers, but only Belle was a slave. 

Belle’s position with Elizabeth Murray seems to have been that of lady’s companion rather than the more common position of lady’s maid. A lady’s companion usually came from the gentry class associated with manorial life and was considered approximately the social equal of her employer. Such companions usually lived in the family quarters and had no responsibility for heavier or more common housekeeping duties. There is certainly the possibility, however, that Belle was accepted as a full member of the family, at least in principle.

This last point we can see in the well-known painting of Belle and her cousin dating from about 1779. Although no longer attributed to the eminent artist Johann Zoffany, the work nevertheless presents a tantalizing view of the two young women, leaving more questions raised than answered. Elizabeth Murray’s figure dominates the foreground and presents her in the upper-middle-class convention of the well-read lady. Belle, dressed in an exotic turban and carrying a platter of fruit, moves behind her, her finger raised enigmatically to her face.  

It is hard to determine whether the artist intended to present the two young women simply in terms of an artful conceit, perhaps contrasting the benefits of nature and learning, or whether the work truly represents the nature of their relationship at Kenwood. By this point in British aristocratic portrait painting, the representation of sitters with fawning black servants was going out of fashion, reflecting a growing distaste for such self-aggrandizement, if not with the institution of slavery itself. But even if Belle’s station at Kenwood had been compromised by her race and illegitimate status, her role there seems more like that of a member of the household than that of a servant.  

Here’s what Thomas Hutchinson, the former royal governor of the American colony of Massachusetts, recorded in his diary after a visit to Kenwood in 1779: 

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 [sic] 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 [sic] criminal. …

She is a sort of Superintendant [sic] 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 [sic] the greatest attention to everything he said.

What startled me was this line in Steven Wise’s 2005 book, Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery: “Sometimes she [Dido] served as his [Mansfield’s] amanuensis.” A black ghostwriter to the most influential judge in all of Great Britain! But then I saw it again on the English Heritage site: Belle “received an allowance and helped Lord Mansfield with his legal correspondence.”

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