Our Legal Heritage: Black History Month – Dido Elizabeth Belle



Dido Elizabeth Belle 

To mark Black History Month, SLN is dedicating its ‘Our Legal Heritage’ slot to Scotland’s black history.  

For centuries the identity of a young black woman present in a portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray that adorns the Ambassador’s room of Scone Palace was a mystery. But in the 1990s she was recognised as Dido Elizabeth Belle and her story gives a remarkable insight into the history of slavery in these islands.   

Although born in England, Dido was a girl of mixed race born into slavery. Her mother, Maria Belle was an African slave in the British West Indies and her father was Sir John Lindsay, a Scottish aristocrat and naval officer stationed in the colony who also happened to be the nephew of William Murray, the 1st Earl of Mansfield and England’s greatest judge. 

Dido’s story has attracted attention in recent years thanks to the release of the 2013 film Belle directed by Amma Asante. The movie explores Dido’s role in the Mansfield household and documents the activities of her great-uncle throughout her life.  

Born into Scottish nobility and educated in Perth, Lord Mansfield is celebrated for his reform of English law. He has long been iconised for steering England towards the abolition of slavery. From 1756 to 1788, he was Lord Chief Justice and presided over several court cases which questioned the legality of the slave trade. The best known of these is Somersett’s case of 1772 which concerned an escaped slave whose owner wished to send him back to the West Indies for sale.  

It was during this case that Mansfield famously held that slavery had no basis in common law and had never been established by legislation in England. He decreed that slavery was, therefore, not binding in law.  

While the Mansfield’s ruling pointed to the ‘odiousness’ of slavery, he explicity stated that ‘nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.’  Citing habeas corpus, Lord Mansfield ruled that the captain of the ship on which the slave was being deported, could be considered to be holding a man against his will.  

The ruling has glorified Mansfield as an iconic liberal, dedicated to fighting for the liberties of enslaved people.  

But author Norman Poser, in Lord Mansfield: Justice in the Age of Reason, has revealed that the Earl was reluctant to anger slave owners. Poser argues that Mansfield would have preferred that things went on as they were, quoting him as saying: “I would have all masters think they were free and all negroes think they were not”. Furthermore, in 1785, Mansfield ruled that ‘black slaves in Britain were not entitled to be paid for their labour’. Such statements all but destroy arguments professing his liberalism. 

Poser suggests that a distinction should be made “between Mansfield’s decisions as a judge who consistently furthered the interests of merchants and property owners, even at the expense of fundamental human rights, and his humane conduct of his personal life.” 

Historians have debated the extent to which Earl Mansfield’s decisions in Somersett’s case were influenced by Dido. After the death of her mother, Dido’s father, brought her to his family home at Kenwood House in Hampstead, London. According to the diary of Thomas Hutchinson, an American loyalist living in London, Dido’s mother was taken prisoner in a Spanish vessel by her father. Upon arrival at Kenwood House, Lindsay convinced his uncle to take the child into his care and urged him to raise Dido in a manner befitting her aristocratic blood line. 

Poser argues that although Mansfield was fond of Dido, there is no historical evidence that she influenced his views on slavery. The 2013 film depicts Dido providing crucial assistance to the Earl while he presided over a case involving the mass drowning of slaves in the Caribbean, the veracity of which is also heavily disputed. 

Dido was highly regarded in her household, both she and her cousin Elizabeth Murray received a good education, were dressed in the finest clothes and enjoyed a wealthy, privileged lifestyle. Historians have noted that the Mansfields pampered the two as if they were their own children. Such treatment of a mixed-race child was unheard of. And Thomas Hutchinson’s diary highlights that Sir Linsday had “been reproached for showing fondness’ for Dido.  

Lord Hutchinson records his shock during his visit to Kenwood House, when Dido joined the rest of the family after dinner for coffee, entering the room arm in arm with her cousin Lady Elizabeth as near equals.  

However, Amma Asante’s film highlighted the complicated nature of Dido’s social status. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Dido tells the Earl, “I am too high to eat with the servants, too low to join you at dinner.” Nevertheless, it is irrefutable that she enjoyed an entirely unique and privileged lifestyle for the era.  

As an adult, Dido worked as an amanuensis for Lord Mansfield in his later years. After the death of Lady Mansfield, she cared for her great-uncle, reading newspapers to him at breakfast when he increasingly suffered from rheumatism. 

Dido remained at Hampstead for 30 years. In his will of 1793, Lord Mansfield confirmed her emancipation and provided an outright sum and an annuity to her, making her an heiress to his fortune. Manfield’s will was added to several times to increase the amount of Dido’s inheritance. The original will provided her with an annuity of £100 so that she would have an annual income. However, in the first codicil he added a lump sum of £200 to ‘set out in life’. He later added a further lump sum of £300.  

Her inheritance established her as an independently wealthy woman. She married John Davinier on December 5 1793 at St George’s Hanover Square and the couple moved into a newly built home in March 1794. They had three sons. Dido died on July 25 1804 at the age of 43 and was interred in July of that year at St George’s Fields, Westminster. In the 1970s, the site was redeveloped and her grave was moved.  

Mansfield’s ruling during the Somerset Case was a crucial turning point for English law, his decision echoed the evolving sentiment towards slavery in Britain at the time. However, it would take a further 35 years for the transatlantic slave trade to be abolished. Furthermore, it was not until 1833 that slavery was completely outlawed across the British Empire.