Dido Elizabeth Belle’s life is one of the most remarkable tales of the 18th century: she was born into slavery in the West Indies and yet died a wealthy, educated and respected heiress in London.
Whilst the transatlantic slave trade boomed, Belle lived as a black woman in high society London, forging a career as secretary to Britain’s Chief Justice at the time, Lord Mansfield. Due to her proximity to Mansfield, some have theorised that Belle influenced several of his key precedent-setting judgements on cases around slavery, rulings which began to establish slaves as human beings rather than animals or cargo in the eyes of the law.
Either way, Belle’s life represents a remarkable moment in history.
Here are 10 facts about Dido Belle.
1. She was the daughter of a teenage slave and a Royal Navy officer
Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in 1761 in the West Indies. Her precise birth date and location are unknown. Her mother, Maria Bell, is thought to have been around 15 when she gave birth to Dido. Her father was Sir John Lindsay, an officer in the Royal Navy.
How or why Dido and her mother ended up in England remains unclear, but she was baptised in St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, in 1766.
2. She was brought back to Kenwood House in Hampstead
Sir John Lindsay’s uncle was William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield – a leading barrister, judge and politician of his day. On her arrival in England, Dido was brought to his stately home, Kenwood, just outside the city of London at the time.
3. She was raised by William Murray alongside his other great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray
Precisely how or why the Murrays ended up taking in Dido is unclear: many believe they thought the young Dido would make a good companion and playmate for Lady Elizabeth Murray, who had also been taken in by the Murrays after her mother died.
Despite her illegitimacy and being mixed race, both of which would have been deemed problematic by contemporary standards, Elizabeth seems to have been raised as a gentlewoman, learning to read, write and entertain.
4. She worked as her great-uncle’s secretary for a number of years
Dido’s education set her apart from many of her contemporaries: she worked as a secretary or scribe for Lord Mansfield in his later years. Not only was this unusual for a woman of the period, but it also illustrated a high level of trust and respect between the two of them.
5. She spent the majority of her life at Kenwood
Dido lived at Kenwood until the death of her great-uncle in 1793. She helped supervise Kenwood’s dairy and poultry-yard, which was common for genteel women to do at the time. She lived in luxury and received expensive medical treatments, suggesting she was very much seen as part of the family.
As her uncle got older, and after her aunt died, Dido also helped care for Lord Mansfield, and it seems the pair were genuinely fond of each other.
6. Some have argued she was the reason for Lord Mansfield’s judgements on the slave trade
During much of her time at Kenwood, Dido’s great-uncle was Lord Chief Justice, and he oversaw some precedent-setting judgements on cases around slavery. Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade was virtually at its peak at this point.
Mansfield presided over two key cases in the late 18th century: the Zong massacre and the case of James Somerset. In both cases, he ruled in favour of the rights of slaves as human beings, rather than simply cargo as they had long been treated.
Mansfield had described the slave trade as ‘odious’, but historians have speculated how much Mansfield and Dido’s close relationship might have influenced his decision-making.
Ultimately, his decisions were only the earliest moments on a long journey to abolition which would take decades.
7. Elizabeth and Dido were painted together by David Martin
Dido’s legacy has endured partly because of a portrait painted of her and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth, by the Scottish artist David Martin. In it, the two women are depicted as equals. This was highly unusual, given black women were normally slaves and painted as such.
In the painting, Dido wears a turban, a sumptuous dress and carries a large platter of fruit, smiling knowingly at the viewer, whilst her cousin Elizabeth touches her arm.
8. She was officially freed in Lord Mansfield’s will
The precise nature of Dido’s legal status seems to be uncertain, but to clarify matters, Lord Mansfield made a specific provision to ‘free’ Dido in his will. He also bequeathed her a lump sum of £500, as well as an annuity of £100.
By contemporary standards, this would have made her an extremely wealthy woman. She inherited another £100 in 1799 from another Murray relative.
9. She only married after Lord Mansfield’s death in 1793
Less than 9 months after the death of her benefactor, Dido married John Davinier, a Frenchman, at St George’s in Hanover Square, the parish in which they both lived.
The pair had 3 sons that there are records about, Charles, John and William, and possibly more who were not documented.
10. Dido died in 1804
Dido died in 1804, aged 43. She was buried in July of the same year at St George’s Fields, Westminster. The area was later redeveloped and its unclear where her grave was moved to.