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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The portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray

Unknown artist, formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany

Editor’s note: This column was originally published on May 5. Belle, the movie based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, will be released on DVD on Tuesday and is available now as a digital download on Amazon.com.

For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 78: What role did Lord Mansfield’s mixed-race great-niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle, play in his famous decision on slavery in England?

Increasingly, film audiences are being introduced to black heroes and heroines who, once routinely stereotyped or cropped out of the frame, are now the lens through which we see the dramatic events of history unfold. Look at Gone With the Wind, which won the Oscar for best picture in 1939, versus 12 Years a Slave, the best picture winner of 2013. And who can forget Forest Whitaker last year in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, standing alone with the grieving Jacqueline Kennedy during those excruciating hours after her husband’s assassination, or silently, invisibly serving tea to the “great men” of history as they debated the fate of the African-American people in the South?  

Such films seem at first like an optical illusion, one of those autostereograms, in which, after you stare into it long enough, a different object magically appears. Then you remember that those “objects,” those three-dimensional black men, those women and children, have always been there and that they had a greater impact on history than we were taught. It’s just that folks have refused to see them and, in the case of Hollywood, allowed them to be seen. 

This month, we meet another protagonist reclaimed from the margins of history. She not only lived on the periphery; she literally embodied the margin between black and white worlds 200 years before “the Butler” took up his post, born in England about 10 years before Sally Hemings would be born on a Virginia plantation, soon to become Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. Her name was Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mulatto daughter of a white Royal Navy officer and black slave mother. For 30 years, she lived in the household of the honorable William Murray, the First Earl of Mansfield, one of the most influential British judges of the 18th century, whose verdict on the fate of a runaway slave, James Somerset, in 1772 would reverberate across the Atlantic to the New World. 

Whether Belle’s relationship to Lord Mansfield had a direct impact on the Somerset decision is less clear than that she did move Mansfield’s heart. In fact, her likeness, captured in a landmark painting of the age, hangs prominently in his ancestral home at Scone Palace in Scotland, “the seat of parliaments and the crowning place of the King of Scots, including Macbeth and Robert the Bruce,” as its website states. If you haven’t heard of Dido or the film Belle (to be released in the U.K. in June and in U.S. theaters this month), see the movie now, for it has much to teach us about the unique spaces occupied by the children of interracial liaisons even as early as the 1700s, as “the arc of the moral universe” began its long, slow turn toward emancipation.

The Birth of Dido

The details of Belle’s life are more obscure than are the lives of the rich and famous, but I was able to find more than a passing sketch in a variety of sources, including Leslie Primo’s entry on her in the Oxford Companion to Black British History and an excellent piece on her family history on the BBC’s “Inside Out” website, not least through the English Heritage Web feature “Black Lives in England.” There are other resources, to be sure, but here’s broadly what we know.

While on duty with the Royal Navy in the West Indies, John Lindsay, the son of Sir Alexander Lindsay and Emilia (Murray) Lindsay, daughter of the fifth Viscount Stormont, encountered Maria Belle, a black female slave on a Spanish ship. Whatever passed between them, Lindsay took Belle back to England, where their child, Dido, was born. Very little is known about Dido’s mother except that she was a slave, which, as a matter of law, meant that Dido, too, was a slave. Dido’s West Indian origin and her mother’s name are provided by an entry in the baptismal record at St. George’s Church in Bloomsbury, London, in 1766. By that point, she was about 5 years old.  

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