Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804)

Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray
Public domain image

Dido Elizabeth Belle is best known for the 1779 painting of her alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, the great-niece of William Murray, The First Earl of Mansfield. The Earl, also known as Lord Mansfield, was at the time the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the highest ranking jurist in Great Britain. Mansfield was famously involved in two important cases involving slavery, the Sommersett Case in 1772 where he ruled that English law did not sanction slavery in Great Britain (a ruling highly praised by abolitionists), and the Zong Massacre Case (1783) where he ruled in favor of insurers who refused to pay a ship captain who had purposely threw overboard a number of slaves on his ship.

Elizabeth Belle, referred to as Belle, was born around the month of June in 1761. Her father, John Lindsay, was a young British naval officer and nephew of Lord Mansfield, while her mother, whose name is believed to be Maria Bell, was a slave in the West Indies. The year that Belle’s parents met is not known, nor is it clear that their relationship was consensual. Belle’s baptism records yield no information about her father which indicates she was considered an illegitimate child.

Upon the death of Maria Bell, John Lindsay in 1766 requested that Belle be entrusted to his uncle, Lord Mansfield, who was already raising his young great-niece, Elizabeth Murray, due to her mother passing and her father’s serving the Crown as an ambassador first to Austria and later to France. The addition of Belle to Lord Mansfield’s household provided Elizabeth Murray with a playmate. Belle’s role in the household seemed to have been as Elizabeth’s lady’s companion rather than her lady’s maid.  While in the household she received an education and an annual allowance of £30, several times the wages of a domestic servant. As an adult she managed the estate’s dairy and poultry yards and helped Lord Mansfield with his correspondence, a task normally assigned a male secretary or clerk.

Dido Elizabeth Belle spent nearly three decades at Kenwood House, the home of the Murray family. The best insight into Belle’s life with Lord Mansfield comes from Thomas Hutchinson who visited Kenwood House in 1779 when she was around 18 or 19. While dining with Mansfield, Hutchinson was surprised to see Belle, a woman of black ancestry, sitting with the ladies drinking coffee and later going on a walk with her arm locked with another woman.  An American guest reported, however, that Belle was not allowed to dine with the family.

In 1784, Belle witnessed the death of Lady Mansfield and the following year the marriage of Lady Elizabeth Murray to a distant cousin, George Finch Hatton.  She remained at Kenwood House, however, for nearly another decade, finally leaving the estate upon the death of Lord Mansfield in 1793.

Little is known about the remainder of her life.  She benefited from small inheritances left by Lord and Lady Mansfield. She did not receive an inheritance from her father, Sir John Lindsay, who died an Admiral in the British Navy in 1788.  On December 5, 1793 she married John Davinier, a French gentleman’s steward.  The couple had three children, twins Charles and John, baptized in 1795, and William Thomas, baptized in 1802.  Dido Elizabeth Belle Davinier died in 1804.  Her approximate age at the time of her death was 43.