belle posterMy husband and I were wandering into the movie theatre the other night when my attention was arrested by a film poster for an upcoming feature I hadn’t heard of before.

First the stunning girl on the poster caught my eye, then I saw her name, which was so obviously of African origin that I had to take a closer look.

Gugu Mbatha Raw. The film itself: Belle.

I was intrigued, so much so I googled her name that very night and discovered the story behind the poster.

It begins with a painting – one that appears in Hampstead’s newly refurbished Kenwood House.

Standing next to Elizabeth Murray in a print of Johann Zoffany’s portrait from c.1799, there is a smiling girl wearing pearls. But although she looks equal to her playmate, she is black. This girl is Dido Belle, the daughter of an enslaved woman. Belle was brought up at Kenwood, a house partially built with “blood money” from the Triangular Trade, and she made her own contribution to the abolition of slavery.

A film of Belle`s extraordinary life, Belle, directed by the Ghanaian-born British film director Amma Asante is out this spring with a cast including the South African-born British actress Gugu Mabtha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson,  Emily Watson, Tom Felton, Miranda Richardson etc.

It comes after two films examining the black historical experience: British director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Lee Daniels’s The Butler, both set in the United States. But there is another story of slavery that needs telling and it’s set in London.

Belle’s tale spans Hampstead, Pimlico and 1970s South Africa.

“It’s about identity and finding one’s place,” says the film’s producer Damian Jones, whose previous work includes The History Boys. He lives near Kenwood and wanted to tell Belle’s story after seeing the portrait there (the original is now at Scone Palace in Perthshire but a print is displayed in London). “I thought it was extraordinary — in a rare move for that time a black woman is portrayed as an equal to a white woman. It opens up a lot of questions. Belle’s story ticks the romantic period movie boxes but there’s also a message that’s resonant today.”

Chiwetel Ejiofor, star of 12 Years a Slave, recently said we have a “reflex fear” that stops us telling the truth of Britain’s debt to slavery. “People have a fear of questioning societies to which they owe their whole system of reality … not just in the States, wherever countries still have benefits of that today … I want [the history of slavery] taught in every school, because ultimately it speaks to human respect, and what happens when there are prejudices and where that has led the human race in our history. And could again, very easily.”

Laura Houliston, English Heritage’s curator at Kenwood, says: “Slavery wasn’t just about sugar kings living on land. It affected most homes in England.” So who is the girl in the picture, and what is her relevance to the capital today?

Dido Elizabeth Belle 

Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761–1804) was a bi-racial (an African at that time) Londoner noted by British historians for helping to end slavery in Britain. Belle grew up at Kenwood House, Hampstead, London NW3, (now an English Heritage property, 020 8348 1286). She was the great-niece of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, who as Lord Chief Justice presided over many of the historic cases that affected enslaved Africans. Dido was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Mansfield’s nephew, Admiral Sir John Lindsay, a British Navy captain, and an enslaved African woman known as Marie Belle whom Sir John encountered while his ship was in the Caribbean. 

Painting of Dido Belle with her cousin Elizabeth, formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany. circa 1799

Dido Elizabeth Belle was born around 1761. She was baptised in 1766 at St. George’s Church, Bloomsbury. Her baptism record shows that she was born while her father, John Lindsay, was in the West Indies and that her mother’s name was Maria Belle. It has been suggested that her mother was an African slave captured from a Spanish ship during the capture of Havana from the Spanish in 1762. Lindsay was at the time a Royal Navy captain on HMS Trent, a warship based in the West Indies that took part in the battle.
Lindsay sent the child Dido to her uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, who lived with her family at Kenwood House in Hampstead, just outside London, England. Mansfield and his wife, who were childless, were already raising Dido’s cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray after her mother’s death; Dido was about the same age as Elizabeth. It is possible that Mansfield took Dido in to be Elizabeth’s playmate and, later in life, her personal attendant (her role within the family, as outlined below, suggests that her standing was more that of a lady’s companion than a lady’s maid).
Dido spent some thirty years at Kenwood House. Her position was unusual, because she was formally the daughter of a slave, and as such would have been considered a slave outside of England. But she was to some extent treated as a member of the family. Lord Mansfield himself resolved this paradox in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. When called on to judge the case of an escaped slave, Somersett’s Case, 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 decision was taken by abolitionists to mean that slavery was abolished in England, although his wording reserves judgment on this point, and he later said his decision was only to apply to the slave at issue in the case. Historians have since suggested that Mansfield’s personal experience influenced his decision.
A painting of 1779, formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany, depicts Dido alongside her cousin Elizabeth, carrying exotic fruit and wearing a turban with a large feather. Dido is portrayed with extraordinary vivacity, while the depiction of her cousin is stiff and formalized. The painting, which hangs at Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland, is owned by the present Earl of Mansfield and in 2007 was exhibited in Kenwood during an exhibition to run alongside events marking the bicentenary of the  Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807.
Dido lived at Kenwood for 30 years and despite Lord Mansfield’s revulsion for slavery, the social conventions of his household are unclear. Her status in the household was commented on by several visitors. There is evidence that Dido was not treated as a full and equal family member, dining separately from the family when they had guests, only joining the women for coffee after the meal. Although Dido’s £30 allowance was a considerable amount at the time, it was much less than her cousin Elizabeth’s. However despite the lack of full acceptance of Dido as a mixed race family member, a guest to Kenwood House remarked that Lord Mansfield “called upon [her]…every minute for this and that, and showed the greatest attention to everything she said.”
In 1779 following a dinner at Kenwood House, American Thomas Hutchinson, ex Governor of Massachusetts, wrote in his diary: 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 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 criminal.”
A few years ago there was a cause before his Lordship bro’t by a Black for recovery of his liberty. A Jamaica planter being asked what judgement his Ldship would give? “No doubt” he answered “He will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family.” Hutchinson continued that “She is a sort of Superintendant 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 the greatest attention to everything he said.”
As well as supervising the poultry and dairy yard, typical genteel hobbies for a lady, Dido acted as secretary to Lord Mansfield in his later years writing out letters on his behalf.
It is not certain what Dido’s legal status was in her early life, as in his will Lord Mansfield stated “I confirm to Dido Elizabeth Belle her freedom.” On her father’s death in 1788 the London Chronicle reported that “…he has died, we believe, without any legitimate issue but has left one natural daughter, a Mulatto who has been brought up in Lord Mansfeld’s family almost from her infancy…”
Dido married John Davinier, a gentleman steward, in 1793 at St George’s, Hanover Square together they had three sons: twins Charles and John (baptised at St George’s on 8 May 1795) and William Thomas (baptised at St. George’s on 26 January 1802).  They lived in  what is now Ebury Street, Pimlico.
Dido died in July 1804, at 43 years of age and was buried in St George’s Fields. In the 1970′s the burial ground was deconsecrated and sold off by the church to developers.  Dido’s body was exhumed and reburied as were the other bodies buried there.
Misan Sagay, who wrote the screenplay for Belle, says: “The abolition story is often told without a black person being there. But Belle living with such a force who made judgments that affected slavery must have had some impact. Unless you know about Belle, Mansfield’s decision is left of field.”
Belle left Kenwood in 1793, when she married John Davinier, an English steward at Kenwood. They lived in Pimlico and had three sons. Belle died in 1804, aged 43, but her family line continued. Her last recorded relation is a great-great grandson in South Africa, who died in 1975. In his death certificate his race is listed as white. He was a retired mechanic, married with no children. His father was called Charles Lindsay, “so they must have known there was a link to the Lindsay family,” says Houliston.
Belle’s mother, Maria, ended up in Florida, where John Lindsay gave her land and property. “This raises questions about his obligation to her,” says Houliston.
Of course being in the strange position of young, wealthy but mixed-race — neither a servant nor a legitimate member of the family — was trying. As a character, Belle is “feisty,” says Mbatha-Raw. “She realises the Mansfields protected her. It comes as a shock to her when some treat her like dirt.”
McQueen has said: “People somehow do not want to look at this particular time in history. Slavery lasted 400 years and there are fewer than 20 [films]. We have to redress that balance.” His film 12 Years a Slave, gained 10 Bafta nominations to add to its seven for the Golden Globes. Asante says: “The world is more ready for these stories than ever, to look at our history both good and bad.” As for Dido Belle, “her story belongs to all of us.”
Sagay adds that she was drawn to Belle because: “This is a period in our history that we should keep being reminded of. Today there are also judges like Mansfield debating questions that have frightening consequences. We need to remember those who stood up for what is right even though they knew it would have a difficult impact. Belle’s story is that of a quiet revolution, of not only a woman but a black woman influencing history.”
‘Belle’ – the movie will be in cinemas from April/May 2014.
Footnote: I watched the film Belle recently and I absolutely loved it. I was totally caught up in its graceful storyline, stunning sets and excellent acting.  More importantly, I was drawn to tears by it’s main theme: bestowing honour, dignity and worth to a race of people who have never had a choice in the colour of their skin. We of African heritage should all be thankful to those who suffered great indignity, shame and suffering while caught up in slavery (past and present) – for we stand on the shoulders of giants.
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Sources:

The Standard - http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/the-story-behind-dido-belle–the-biracial-londoner-who-helped-end-slavery-in-britain-9046065.html

Mixed Race Magazine - http://mixedracemagazine.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/dido-elizabeh-bell/

Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dido_Elizabeth_Belle

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