The story of Dido Elizabeth Belle: Britain's first black aristocrat

Painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle by David Martin
Painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle by David Martin | Wikipedia | Public Domain

Hanging on a wall in Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland, is an 18th-century double portrait of two young women of high society. One is sitting reading a book whilst the other is passing by clutching a basket of fruit. Both are adorned with expensive silk dresses with pearl necklaces draped across their necks. In the distance, you can make out the Georgian cityscape of London, including St. Paul's Cathedral. There is nothing unusual about the painting drawn by the Scottish artist David Martin, except for the fact that one of the women is black.

The young lady in question is Dido Elizabeth Belle who is captured in the portrait alongside Lady Elizabeth Murray, her seated white companion. In 18th-century British art, black people were often depicted as servants or slaves; it is highly unusual to see a black woman represented as the equal of a white woman. But as we shall discover, nothing about the life of Dido was usual.

Born in 1761 in the West Indies, Dido was the daughter of a young British naval officer called John Lindsay and an African woman named Maria Belle. It is believed that Maria was a slave aboard a Spanish slaving ship travelling across the Caribbean. Lindsay was the captain of the British warship HMS Trent, which was patrolling the coasts of Senegal and the Caribbean. Although historians are not entirely sure about how Lindsay and Maria met, it is thought his ship captured the slaving ship that Maria was on.

A tryst ensued and Maria became pregnant with Lindsay’s child. After Dido was born, John brought both her and Maria back to England whereupon the young girl was sent to live with Lindsay’s uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice, the most powerful judge in England. Lord Mansfield and his wife were childless but had already taken in Dido’s cousin, Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had recently died. The Murray family raised Dido alongside her cousin, educating her in the ways of 18th-century aristocracy.

It is believed that Maria and John continued their relationship until 1772 when she left for Pensacola, Florida to live on a plot of land purchased for her by Lindsay. Lindsay, who by this time was knighted, had many illegitimate children although no offspring from his actual marriage to Mary Milner, daughter of Sir William Milner.

Raised at Kenwood House, the palatial stately home of Lord Mansfield in Hampstead, London, Dido was brought up as part of the aristocratic family. Although it was not unheard of at the time for a wealthy British family to become legal guardians to an illegitimately born relative, it was exceptionally rare for a child of mixed race, born to a former slave, not to be raised as a servant. It was clear from the David Martin portrait that Dido was considered of high status, a far cry from many people of colour during that time in Georgian England.

Dido received the same education as her cousin and lived within the same opulent walls. She slept every night in a four-poster bed in her own beautifully decorated bedroom. She also received an annual allowance of £30, several times more than the wages of domestic workers. However, in this regard, Dido was not on equal footing with Elizabeth. Elizabeth received £100 annually, a reflection of the fact she was a beneficiary in her own right whereas Dido was illegitimate.

There are a handful of written records about Dido that help shed further light on her upbringing, character and how the family treated her. American Thomas Hutchinson, a former governor of Massachusetts, was invited to dine at Kenwood House in 1779 and later detailed the events in his personal 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,’ Thomas wrote. ‘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.’

William Murray, a descendent of Lord Mansfield translates what Hutchinson saw. ‘Dido was very, very privileged. She was in the top 5 per cent, perhaps the top 1 per cent, in terms of how she lived, her allowance, her dress, her education.’ But Belle’s position was far from clear-cut. She was treated like the rest of the family – when it was just the family. Where it got awkward is when they had guests in.’

It seems that when there were guests at Kenwood, Belle didn’t dine with them but joined the party in its latter stages. Although she may not have kept company with the guests for the entirety of their visit, she often left them with a good impression of her. This is clear from a passage taken from the obituary of Sir John Lindsay, written in the London Chronicle in 1788:

‘He has died, we believe, without any legitimate issue but has left one natural daughter…who has been brought up in Lord Mansfield's family almost from her infancy and whose amiable disposition and accomplishments have gained her the highest respect from all his Lordship's relations and visitants.’

Dido had clearly been raised a lady whose many talents we know included playing music and writing. Her beautiful handwriting led Lord Mansfield to often request she write down his dictated letters, a role more often undertaken by a male clerk. This not only shows the trust Lord Mansfield placed in Dido but also the close relationship they must have shared.

It would also have meant that Dido was acutely aware of the many cases that the Lord found himself presiding over. None more relevant than the 1772 case of Somerset v Stewart, which saw a slave owner wish to send his escaped (but now re-captured) slave back to the West Indes to be sold.

Historians have debated whether Lord Mansfield’s relationship with Dido swayed his position in any way but he ruled in favour of the ex-slave, declaring slavery to be ‘so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it.’ The landmark ruling is often remembered as the beginning of the end for slavery in Britain, although it would take until 1833 before it was completely abolished.

During her final years at Kenwood Dido undertook a very common hobby for a genteel woman at that time - supervising the estates dairy and poultry yard. However, her day-to-day changed through the 1780s as Elizabeth was married off and Lady Mansfield passed away leaving Dido to care for the Lord.

In 1788, Lord Mansfield died bequeathing Dido £500 with a £100 annuity. A few months later Dido married a French steward called John Davinier and the pair had three sons, which they raised in London.

At the age of just 43, Dido passed away of natural causes and was buried close to what is now Bayswater Road. During the 1970s, her grave was moved due to redevelopment. Sadly, no one quite knows exactly where Britain’s first black aristocrat now lies in rest.