Biography of Dido Elizabeth Belle, English Aristocrat

Dido Elizabeth Belle

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Dido Elizabeth Belle (c. 1761–July 1804) was a British aristocrat of mixed heritage. She was born into slavery in the British West Indies, the daughter of an African slave and British military officer Sir John Lindsay. In 1765, Lindsay moved with Belle to England, where she lived with royals and eventually became a wealthy heiress; her life was the subject of the 2013 film "Belle."

Fast Facts: Dido Elizabeth Belle

  • Known For: Belle was a mixed-race English aristocrat who was born into slavery and died a wealthy heiress.
  • Born: c. 1761 in the British West Indies
  • Parents: Sir John Lindsay and Maria Belle
  • Died: July 1804 in London, England
  • Spouse: John Davinier (m. 1793)
  • Children: John, Charles, William

Early Life

Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in the British West Indies around 1761. Her father Sir John Lindsay was a British nobleman and navy captain, and her mother Maria Belle was an African woman that Lindsay is thought to have found on a Spanish ship in the Caribbean (little else is known about her). Her parents were not married. Dido was named after her mother, her great-uncle’s first wife, Elizabeth, and for Dido the Queen of Carthage. “Dido” was the name of a popular 18th-century play, William Murray, a descendant of Dido’s great-uncle, later said. “It was probably chosen to suggest her elevated status,” he said. “It says: ‘This girl is precious, treat her with respect.’”

A New Beginning

At about the age of 6, Dido parted ways with her mother and was sent to live with her great-uncle William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, and his wife in England. The couple was childless and already raising another great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died. It’s unknown how Dido felt about the separation from her mother, but the split resulted in the mixed-race child being raised as an aristocrat rather than a slave (she did, however, remain the property of Lord Mansfield).

Dido grew up at Kenwood, a royal estate outside of London, and was allowed to receive a royal education. She even served as the earl’s legal secretary, assisting him with his correspondence (an unusual responsibility for a woman at the time). Misan Sagay, who wrote the screenplay for the film “Belle,” said that the earl appeared to treat Dido nearly equally to her completely European cousin. The family purchased the same luxurious items for Dido that they did for Elizabeth. "Quite often if they were buying, say, silk bed hangings, they were buying for two," Sagay said. She believes that the earl and Dido were very close, as he wrote about her with affection in his diaries. Friends of the family—including Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay—also noted the close relationship between Dido and the earl.

Scottish philosopher James Beattie noted her intelligence, describing Dido as "a negro girl about 10 years old, who had been six years in England, and not only spoke with the articulation and accent of a native, but repeated some pieces of poetry, with a degree of elegance, which would have been admired in any English child of her years."

Life at Kenwood

A 1779 painting of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth—which now hangs in Scotland’s Scone Palace—shows that Dido’s skin color did not give her inferior status at Kenwood. In the painting, both she and her cousin are dressed in finery. Also, Dido is not positioned in a submissive pose, as blacks typically were in paintings during that time period. This portrait—the work of Scottish painter David Martin—is largely responsible for generating public interest in Dido over the years, as is the notion, which remains in dispute, that she influenced her uncle, who served as Lord Chief Justice, to make legal decisions that led to slavery in England being abolished.

The one indication that Dido’s skin color did result in her being treated differently at Kenwood is that she was forbidden to take part in formal dinners with her family members. Instead, she had to join them after such meals concluded. Francis Hutchinson, an American visitor to Kenwood, described this phenomenon in a letter. "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,” Hutchinson wrote. “He [the earl] calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has.”

Inheritance

Although Dido was slighted during meals, William Murray cared enough about her to want her to live autonomously after his death. He left her a large inheritance and granted Dido her freedom when he died at the age of 88 in 1793.

Death

After her great-uncle’s death, Dido married Frenchman John Davinier and bore him three sons. She died in July 1804 at age 43. Dido was buried in the cemetery at St. George's Fields, Westminster.

Legacy

Much of Dido's unusual life remains a mystery. It was David Martin's portrait of her and her cousin Elizabeth that initially stirred so much interest in her. The painting inspired the 2013 film "Belle," a speculative work about the aristocrat's unique life. Other works about Dido include the plays "Let Justice Be Done" and "An African Cargo"; the musical "Fern Meets Dido"; and the novels "Family Likeness" and "Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle." The absence of recorded information about Dido's life has made her an enigmatic figure and the source of endless speculation. Some historians believe she may have influenced her uncle in making his historic anti-slavery rulings as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

Sources

  • Bindman, David, et al. "The Image of the Black in Western Art." Belknap Press, 2014.
  • Jeffries, Stuart. “Dido Belle: the Artworld Enigma Who Inspired a Movie.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 May 2014.
  • Poser, Norman S. "Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason." McGill-Queen's University Press, 2015.