Henry Louis Gates Jr.
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.  

In 1764, Dido Elizabeth Belle’s father was knighted, and a year later he returned to duty in the West Indies. In the meantime, he turned to his family for help raising his mixed-race daughter. It was not just any family to which he turned, but that of his mother’s brother, William Murray, and his wife, Elizabeth Finch, soon to become the First Earl and Lady of Mansfield. By historical coincidence, this Lord Mansfield also happened to be the lord chief justice of England and Wales, roughly the equivalent of being the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.


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.”

Try to imagine the great Thomas Jefferson asking any black person his or her opinion about his draft of the Declaration of Independence, or asking Sally Hemings for her thoughts about the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States! Not going to happen, folks! Jefferson thought black people were distinctly inferior intellectually to white people, and even dared to write that male orangutans preferred African women to their own females! And as quiet as it is kept, Jefferson never freed Hemings formally; she wasn’t legally freed until after Jefferson’s death in 1826—by his daughter.


The Somerset Decision

A most intriguing question is whether Dido Belle, while still a child, influenced the most famous legal case ever to cross Lord Mansfield’s desk, the case that would help make slavery illegal in England. Kathy Chater summarizes the facts of the Somerset case in the Oxford Companion to Black British History.


The slave James Somerset was purchased in America and brought to England by his master in 1769. Slipping his owner there, Somerset was baptized in London in 1771, “perhaps in the hope that this would liberate him.” Fat chance! Somerset’s owner “had Somerset captured and put on board … a ship bound for Jamaica.” But here’s where things got interesting: Three sympathetic witnesses cried foul and, in an attempt to rescue Somerset, “obtained from Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, a writ of habeas corpus, a legal test of the right to imprison someone.” In February 1772, Chater writes, “the case came before the Court of King’s Bench, the highest court of common law in England and Wales.”

Somerset’s lawyers, who included leading English abolitionist Granville Sharp, argued that the laws of slavery elsewhere in the colonies shouldn’t be forced on mother England, which, through its common law, was moving toward liberty. The other side argued that, however repugnant slavery was, no court should rob a man of his property when he was traveling outside the country. Mansfield hoped the parties would settle, but when they didn’t, he was forced to decide. Recalling the drama, Thomas Hutchinson wrote in his diary, “A Jamaica planter being asked what judgement his Ldship would give? ‘No doubt’ he answered ‘He [Somerset] will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family.’” He was speaking of Belle.


On June 22, 1772, Lord Mansfield ruled that Somerset could not be forcibly removed from England, that there were limits on what could be done with a slave and that a coercive sale outside England was beyond those limits. “Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England,” Mansfield wrote, “the black must be discharged.’”

Although slavery in England and the kidnapping of slaves out of England continued after the Somerset decision (and Mansfield himself ruled in 1785 that “black slaves in Britain were not entitled to be paid for their labour,” as Chater explains), antislavery advocates in America and Britain now had a short but powerful precedent to cite that said slavery was in no way God’s or nature’s law but an evil institution that could exist only where it had the force of local, man-made laws. Of course, it would take the British Parliament until 1807 to pass the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and until 1833 to pass the Slavery Abolition Act extending throughout the Empire. But the long arc of emancipation was beginning to turn, and Mansfield was there as a source.


“Some speculated that Dido had … badgered him [Mansfield] into it,” Steven Wise writes, “though it is hard to believe a child could accomplish this.” Then again, Belle’s presence in his household could have brought to life for him the principles of law and liberty he read in the works of Cicero, Montesquieu and Blackstone. “[H]e did adore her,” Wise writes. “By 1785, aged twenty-two, she was receiving an annual allowance greater than 30 pounds, twice the salary of Mansfield’s first coachman, and nearly four times that of a kitchen maid … ” Though, he adds, “it was substantially less than the 100 pounds her cousin, Lady Elizabeth, was receiving.” He cautions again, “[T]hat could have been because Dido was illegitimate, not because she was a mulatto.”  

No one knows how Belle reacted to the whispers at Kenwood about the Somerset case. But, imagining a judge today who has, for example, a gay or lesbian relative or close friend and is asked to weigh in on a discrimination case, one cannot help but speculate that Mansfield’s proximity and fondness for his mulatto great-niece factored in how he viewed the slave James Somerset in his court.


Manumission and Allowance

Belle’s father, Sir John Lindsay, died in 1788. Five years later, Lord Mansfield died. In his last will and testament, dated April 17, 1782, Mansfield provided Belle with an inheritance: a 100-pound annuity, to which he tacked on 500 more pounds. Interestingly, Wise notes, Mansfield’s will also “confirm[ed] to Dido Elizabeth Belle her freedom,” meaning it was “implied he had already freed her” but did not want to “leave her freedom to chance.” A decade after the Somerset decision, emancipation was not settled in England, and Mansfield likely wanted to protect her from being kidnapped or sold.


Fading Out

After Belle left Kenwood in 1793, the historical trail appeared to run cold until genealogist Sarah Minney pieced the various clues together, including a married name: Davinier. Belle’s husband, John Davinier, was a French-born gentleman’s steward, and the couple lived at St. George Hanover Square in England, where they had at least three children. Their son Charles served with the British Army in India, and her last known descendant was a great-great-great grandson, Harold Davinier, who died in 1975. He lived in South Africa and was described as white.  


Belle died in July 1804, and her husband eventually remarried. A burial record exists for Belle in the parish registers of St. George Hanover Square, but the cause of her death remains unknown.

Other Side of the Atlantic

Screenwriter Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante were so inspired by the painting of Dido Belle and Elizabeth Murray at Scone Palace in Scotland that they decided to bring her into further focus in their film Belle, weaving a tale of race, class and romance that gives Dido a voice like never before. The part is a breakthrough role for actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Lord Mansfield is impeccably portrayed by Tom Wilkinson.   


Belle arrives stateside this month, but let us not think for a minute that stories like Belle’s are exclusive to Britain. There were countless mulatto children on both sides of Atlantic in the 18th and 19th centuries, so many so that by 1860, as historian Ira Berlin writes in his book Slaves Without Masters, “fully 40 percent of the Southern free Negro population were classified as mulattoes, while only one slave in ten had some white ancestry.” The reason: Masters were more likely to free slaves who looked like—and, in many cases, descended from—themselves.

Among those fathers was Thomas Jefferson. Yet despite the six children we now know he had with his mixed-race slave Sally Hemings, Jefferson was not as vocal about her in his will as Lord Mansfield was about Belle in his. Nor was Jefferson a fan of the judge, as this November 1785 letter from Paris reveals:

Ld. Mansfield, a man of the clearest head and most seducing eloquence … has been able since his admission to the bench of judges in England, to persuade the courts of Common law to revive the practice of construing their text equitably. The object of former judges has been to render the law more and more certain, that of this personage to render it more incertain under pretence of rendering it more reasonable: no period of the English law, of whatever length it be taken, can be produced wherein so many of it’s settled rules have been reversed as during the time of this judge.


When I read this, I wondered whether Jefferson had heard of Mansfield’s great-niece Belle and whether she reminded him of his own mulatto children. Their story, like so many of our family stories, destroys the fiction of strict racial categories. It also proves that just because a powerful white man had mulattoes in his family, he didn’t necessarily take a generous view toward people of African descent. Otherwise, how could Jefferson have written this, in his Notes on the State of Virginia:

“Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”


Who knows how many cases of mixed-race individuals will eventually be confirmed by DNA science—stories of men, women and children, both famous and unknown, who either passed for white, embraced blackness, were captured by artists or simply disappeared. One thing I know: When I’m not at the movies marveling at such resilient characters as Belle, I’ll be pressing on with my genealogical work to unravel our connections to them.  

As Dido tells Lord Mansfield in Belle, “You break every rule when it matters enough, papa. I am the evidence.”


As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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