Dido Elizabeth Belle
Painting of a young women
Painting of Belle, formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany, 1779
Died July 1804 (aged c.43)
Resting place St George's Fields, Westminster (1804–1970s)
Residence Kenwood House
Religion Church of England
Spouse(s) John Davinier (1793–1804; her death)
Charles Davinier (bap.1795)
John Davinier (bap.1795)
William Thomas Davinier (bap. 1800)
Sir John Lindsay
Relatives Sir Alexander Lindsay, 3rd Baronet (grandfather)
William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (great-uncle)
Margaret Lindsay Ramsay (aunt)
Lady Elizabeth Murray (cousin)
Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761–1804) was born into slavery as the natural daughter of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, and Sir John Lindsay, a British career naval officer who was stationed there. He was later knighted and promoted to admiral. Lindsay took Belle with him when he returned to England in 1765, entrusting her raising to his uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and his wife Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Mansfield. The Murrays educated Belle, bringing her up as a free gentlewoman at their Kenwood House, together with their niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died. Belle lived there for 30 years. In his will of 1793, Lord Mansfield confirmed her freedom and provided an outright sum and an annuity to her, making her an heiress.
In these years, her great-uncle, in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice, ruled in two significant slavery cases, finding in 1772 that slavery had no precedent in common law in England, and had never been authorized under positive law. This was taken as the formal end of slavery in Britain. In the Zong massacre, a case related to the slave trade, he narrowly ruled that the owners of the ship were not due insurance payments for the loss of slaves they had thrown overboard during a voyage, as their killing appeared to be related to errors by the officers.
1 Early life
2 At Kenwood House
2.1 Social position
3 Later life
5 Mansfield family tree
6 Representation in media
6.1 Film, music, plays
Belle's father Sir John Lindsay
Dido Elizabeth Belle was born into slavery in 1761 in the West Indies to an enslaved African woman known as Maria Belle. (Her name was spelled as Maria Bell in her daughter's baptism record.) Her father was Sir John Lindsay, a member of the Lindsay family of Evelix branch of the Clan Lindsay and a descendant of the Clan Murray, who was a career naval officer and then captain of the British warship HMS Trent, based in the West Indies. He was the son of Sir Alexander Lindsay, 3rd Baronet. Lindsay is thought to have found Maria Belle held as a slave on a Spanish ship which his forces captured in the Caribbean; he appears to have taken her as his concubine (see plaçage). Lindsay returned to England after the war in 1765, likely bringing at that time his young, multiracial biological daughter to London. He entrusted her to the care of his uncle, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, and his wife Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Mansfield. She was baptized as Dido Elizabeth Belle in 1766 at St. George's, Bloomsbury.
A contemporary obituary of Sir John Lindsay, who had eventually been promoted to admiral, acknowledged that he was the father of Dido Belle, and described her: "[H]e has died, we believe, without any legitimate issue but has left one natural daughter, a Mulatto who has been brought up in Lord Mansfield’s family almost from her infancy and whose amiable disposition and accomplishments have gained her the highest respect from all his Lordship's relations and visitants." At one time, historians thought her mother was an African slave on a ship captured by Lindsay's warship during the Battle of Havana (1762), but this specific date is unlikely, as Dido was born in 1761, the previous year.
At Kenwood House
Painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle (l) and her cousin Elizabeth Murray (r).
The Earl and Countess of Mansfield lived at Kenwood House in Hampstead, just outside the City of London. Childless, they were already raising their orphaned niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, born in 1760. It is possible that the Mansfields took Belle in to be Lady Elizabeth's playmate and, later in life, her personal attendant. Her role within the family suggests that her role became more that of a lady's companion than a lady's maid.
Belle lived at Kenwood House for 30 years. Her position was unusual because she was born into slavery according to colonial law. Lord and Lady Mansfield to some extent treated her and brought her up as a member of the Murray family. As she grew older, she often assisted Mansfield by taking dictation of his letters, which showed she had been educated. One of Mansfield's friends, American Thomas Hutchinson, a former governor of Massachusetts who as a Loyalist had moved to London, recalled that Belle "was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that, and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said". He described her as "neither handsome nor genteel - pert enough".
Lord Mansfield ruled on a related matter of the status of slaves in England in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. When called on in 1772 to judge Somerset v Stewart, the case of an escaped slave whose owner wanted to send him back to the West Indies for sale, he decreed:
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 its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it's 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.
Mansfield's ruling that slavery did not exist in common law and had never been introduced by positive law was taken by abolitionists to mean that slavery was abolished in England. His ruling was narrow and reserved judgment on this point, saying only that the slave's owner had no right to remove Somerset from England against his will. Mansfield later said his decision was intended only to apply to the slave at issue in the case. At the time, it was suggested that Mansfield's personal experience with raising Dido Belle influenced his decision. Thomas Hutchinson later recalled a comment by a slave-owner: "A few years ago there was a cause before his Lordship brought by a Black for recovery of his liberty. A Jamaica planter, being asked what judgment his Lordship would give [answered] 'No doubt... he will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family.’"
The social conventions of his household are somewhat unclear. A 2007 exhibit at Kenwood suggests that she was treated as "a loved but poor relation," and therefore did not always dine with guests, as was reported by Thomas Hutchinson. He said Belle joined the ladies afterward for coffee in the drawing room. In 2014, author Paula Byrne wrote that Belle's exclusion from this particular dinner was pragmatic rather than the custom. She notes that other aspects of Belle's life, such as being given expensive medical treatments and luxurious bedroom furnishings, were evidence of her position as Lady Elizabeth's equal at Kenwood.
As Belle grew older, she took on the responsibility of managing the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood. This was a typical occupation for ladies of the gentry, but helping her uncle with his correspondence was less usual. This was normally done by a male secretary or a clerk. Belle was given an annual allowance of £30 10s, several times the wages of a domestic worker. By contrast, Lady Elizabeth received around £100, but she was a beneficiary in her own right through her mother's family. Belle, quite apart from her race, was illegitimate, in a time and place when great social stigma usually accompanied such status.
Belle's father died in 1788 without legitimate heirs, bequeathing £1000 to be shared by his "reputed children", John and Elizabeth Lindsay (as noted in his will). Historian Gene Adams believed this suggested that Lindsay referred to his daughter as Elizabeth, and she may have been named Dido by his uncle and aunt after they took charge of the girl. Another source says that there was another natural daughter, known as Elizabeth Palmer (born c. 1765), who lived in Scotland.
Belle also inherited £100 from Lady Margery Murray in 1793, one of two female relatives who had come to live with and help care for the Murrays in their later years. In his will written in 1783, Lord Mansfield officially confirmed Belle's freedom to secure her future; he also bequeathed her with £500 as an outright sum and a £100 annuity, which she received after his death in 1793.
William Murray left his niece Elizabeth Murray £10,000. Her father was in line to inherit his father's title and more money.
After her great-uncle's death in March 1793, Belle married John Davinier, a Frenchman who worked as a gentleman's steward, on 5 December 1793 at St George's, Hanover Square. They were both then residents of the parish. The Daviniers had at least three sons: twins Charles and John, both baptized at St George's on 8 May 1795; and William Thomas, baptized there on 26 January 1802.
She died in 1804 at the age of 43, and was interred in July of that year at St George's Fields, Westminster, a burial-ground close to what is now Bayswater Road. In the 1970s, the site was redeveloped and her grave was moved. She was survived by her husband, who later remarried and had two more children with his second wife.
Belle's son Charles Davinier(e) served with the Madras Army (one of the territorial armies of the East India Company (HEIC), preceding the British Indian Army). In 1810, he was listed as a lieutenant in the 15th Native Infantry (but was surely an ensign before, because in the HEIC, purchasing of commissions was not practised).  In August 1836, he married at Kensington Church, Hannah Nash, youngest daughter of J. Nash, Esquire, of Kensington. At this time, he held the rank of captain in the 30th Native Infantry (that was formed from the 2nd Battalion, 15th Native Infantry in 1824). In August 1837, Captain Charles Davinier was relieved from his former duty and was "to have charge of Infantry recruits" in the headquarters at Fort St. George. He retired from service in 1847 (with unknown rank), still being with the 30th Native Infantry. Nothing is known of his later life.
Belle's last known descendant, her great-great-grandson Harold Davinier, died childless in South Africa in 1975.
Mansfield family tree
[show] v t e Mansfield tree
Representation in media
The family commissioned a painting of Dido and Elizabeth. Completed in 1779, it was formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany though is currently thought to be painted in the Zoffany style by David Martin. It is "unique in British art of the 18th century in depicting a black woman and a white woman as near equals". It shows Dido carrying exotic fruit and wearing a turban with a large ostrich feather. She is alongside and slightly behind her cousin Elizabeth. Dido is portrayed with great vivacity, while her cousin appears more sedate and formal; both women wear gowns reflecting their high social status. They are standing together on the grounds of Kenwood and her cousin's hand lies gently upon Dido's arm, suggesting affection and the possibility they are walking the grounds together. Their positioning in the painting may hint to differences in their race: Elizabeth stands holding a book while Dido holds a plate of fruit, as if on her way to serve others. However, Dido's gown and accessories demonstrate an expensive, fashion-forward style contrasting with Elizabeth's more traditional dress. The painting is owned by the present Earl of Mansfield and housed at Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland. In 2007, it was exhibited in Kenwood, together with more information about Belle, during an exhibition marking the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807.
Film, music, plays
Dido Belle (2006), a film by Jason Young, was written as a short period drama titled Kenwood House. It was workshopped at Battersea Arts Centre on 21 June 2006 as part of the Battersea Writers' Group script development programme.
Shirley J. Thompson's operatic trilogy, Spirit Songs - including Spirit of the Middle Passage about Dido Elizabeth Belle, with Abigail Kelly in the role, was performed with the Philharmonia Orchestra at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, in March 2007 as part of the 200-year commemoration of the act abolishing the international slave trade.
Let Justice Be Done, Mixed Blessings Theatre Group; 2008 play explores the influence that Belle might have had on her great-uncle's Somersett Ruling of 1772.
An African Cargo by Margaret Busby, staged by Nitro (Black Theatre Co-operative) at Greenwich Theatre, 2007, in commemoration of the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. The play deals with a landmark 1783 trial presided over by Lord Mansfield at the Guildhall, resulting from the Zong massacre. The character of Belle expresses feelings of horror and injustice for the murder of the slaves on the ship.
Belle (2013), a feature film directed by Amma Asante, explores Dido's life as the multiracial natural daughter of an aristocrat in 18th-century England; she became an heiress but occupied an ambiguous social position. The film is based on the 1779 Zoffany painting of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth.The film stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido and Tom Wilkinson as her guardian Lord Mansfield.
Family Likeness, a 2013 novel by Caitlin Davies, was inspired in part by the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle.
Author Paula Byrne was commissioned to write Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle (2014) as a tie-in to the 2013 movie, Belle. It was published as an audiobook when the movie opened in the United States.