Biography of Dido Elizabeth Belle

A Fascinating Historical Figure

Dido Elizabeth Belle Portrait

 Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

These days there’s more interest in Dido Elizabeth Belle today than ever before. That’s quite a feat given that Dido was born centuries ago. “Belle,” a Fox Searchlight film about Dido that opened in U.S. theaters in 2014, generated widespread curiosity about the mixed-race woman raised by a family of aristocrats. Little has been written about Belle, but the scant information that is available about the biracial gentlewoman is enough to piece together a biographical sketch about her life.

Who Was Belle?

Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in 1761, likely in what was then known as the British West Indies, to a nobleman and a woman believed to be a slave. Her father, Sir John Lindsay, was a 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, according to ​The Guardian. 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, USA Today reports. “Dido” was the name of a popular 18th-century play, William Murray, a descendant of Dido’s great-uncle, told USA Today. “It was probably chosen to suggest her elevated status,” he added. “It says: ‘This girl is precious, treat her with respect.’”

A New Beginning

At about age 6, Dido parted ways with her mother and was sent to live with her great-uncle, William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, and his wife. 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 as a slave.

Growing up in Kenwood, an estate outside of London, allowed Dido to receive an education. She even served as the earl’s legal secretary. 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 told USA Today. Sagay believes that the earl and Dido were very close, as he mentions her “lovingly in his diaries,” she told USA Today.

A 1779 painting of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth that now hangs in Scotland’s Scone Palace signals that Dido’s skin color did not give her inferior status at Kenwood. The painting shows both she and her cousin dressed in finery. Also, Dido is not positioned in a submissive pose, as blacks typically were for paintings during that time period. The painting 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 slavery in England to be 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.”

The Last Chapter

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

After her great-uncle’s death, Dido married Frenchman John Davinier and bore him three sons. She died just seven years after her great-uncle’s death. She was 43 years old.