Dido Elizabeth Belle is the first black British aristocrat, born in 1761. She’s one of my favourites for a few reasons, the first is because history often shows black people as slaves and servants but Dido Elizabeth Belle was an aristocrat. Rumour has it that some visitors were often unprepared to see a black woman dressed in the same clothes as themselves roaming around the house with the freedom that a servant at the time would not have had. The second is because of the impact that I believe she undoubtedly held on the law at the time so you’ll have to excuse me if I geek out later, I’ll try to hold it down, or at least give you fair warning. Dido Elizabeth Belle was raised by Lord Mansfield (then the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales) as part of an aristocratic family in Georgian Britain at the height of the transatlantic slave trade. And she was an aristocrat.
Dido Elizabeth Belle’s father, Sir John Lindsay, was an English career naval officer stationed in the Caribbean, and her mother was an African woman called Marie Belle. Some sources say Marie was a slave that Sir John impregnated during the Battle of Havana in 1762 HOWEVER those sources need to fact check because according to the English Heritage Dido’s baptism records her birth in 1761. So no, she wasn’t born into slavery contrary to popular reports. Dido’s father referred to her as Elizabeth and it is likely she was given the name Dido by her family in London after the famous African Queen.
Dido was taken to London in 1765 and entrusted to Sir John’s uncle, William Murray – the 1st Earl of Mansfield, to be raised in Kenwood House, London by Lord Mansfield and his wife who were unable to have children. Lord Mansfield was already raising his great-niece Elizabeth Murray and Dido was raised as Elizabeth’s lady companion. It would have been more common for her to be raised as a maid but this is not the approach the Mansfields took. Instead Dido received an education, learning to read, write and play music in addition to an annual allowance of £30, several times the wage of a domestic servant. A visitor to Kenwood House in 1779, Thomas Hutchinson described his surprise at seeing Belle while dining with Lord Mansfield:
“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…”
It should be noted that whilst Dido had the freedom of the house, and amongst the family was treated as an equal, when guests visited the house she did not dine with the family.
Her impact on the law and slavery
Lord Mansfield and the man who raised Dido went on to become the most powerful judge in Britain. In 1772 he presided over the landmark case of a runaway slave called James Somerset whose owner had brought him to England, where he then escaped, and was now was trying to force him back to Jamaica to be a slave. Lord Mansfield ruled that slavery was not permitted by the laws in England and Wales going so far as to say
“It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”
Many historians have argued that the presence of Dido Elizabeth Belle in Lord Mansfield’s life undoubtedly contributed to this decision.