Would you expect a mixed raced woman to have aristocracy status in 18th century Britain? Not really. That is why the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle is so extraordinary, and still a mystery. The above portrait shows Dido with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, who is touching Dido’s arm. Although Dido is at the back, she is dressed in elegant clothing and both women are facing the audience, symbolising equality. Leaving many wondering ‘ What is Dido’s story?’
Dido’s mother is unknown, however is said to be an African slave on a slave ship, captured by a royal navy Captain called John Lindsay around 1763. Dido was said to be born around that time. Her mother may have been called Maria Belle (hence Dido’s surname), but her relationship with Lindsay is unclear.
Dido was sent to live with her great uncle William Murray (relative from her fathers side), at Lord Mansfield’s Kenwood House in London, while her father remained at sea. It was abnormal for a white family to bring up a child from another ethnicity as their own, perhaps because Murray and he’s wife were childless, they were happy to take on the responsibility. They were already bringing up their niece Elizabeth Murray (whose mother had died young and whose father was a British politician). Just to give you a visual I have put the Manfields family tree in below.
[Image taken from Wikipedia]
Life seemed good for Dido, she earned an allowance and was given chores. She was said to be a companion and playmate for Elizabeth, however was treated as one of the family, and it can be seen through the below sources.
- A journal entry from an American businessman at the time who talked about the family describing Dido appearing to have Lord Mansfield wrapped around her little finger.
- Thomas Hutchinson, ex Governor of Massachusetts, wrote in his diary after having dinner at the Manford house:
“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…
Despite the Dido’s skin colour did create social barriers. She would not have been allowed to participate in any public family gatherings, for instance she would eat alone during meal times. Finding a husband proved to be difficult. Marring was a must for women, Elizabeth marreid George Finch-Hatton in 1785, and left the family house. It is thought that Dido married 10 years after that, to a senior servant named John Davinir (becoming Dido Elizabeth Davinier). She had 3 children, twin boys Charles and John (1795) and a son called William (1800), and they all lived around Pimlico, London.
Dido’s father died, leaving £1000 for her in his will (he also gave a sum to another illegitimate child he had). Lord Mansfield died in 1793, confirming Dido’s freedom in he’s will and leaving her £500, plus £100 per year for life (and when we look at the value of money then, clearly she had enough to comfortably live off). Dido died in 1804, aged a little over 40.
- Dido certainly left a mark thereafter, The James Somerset trial was Mansield’s most famous case leading up to the abolition of slavery, which questioned the legality of slavery. Many question if this arrised because of Dido’s presence in the house.
- The last of her relatives is said to be Harold Daviniere who died (1975) a free white South African in a land still struggling under apartheid.
- One thing to look out for next year is a movie directed by Amma Asante based on the story of Dido, focusing on her life as a mixed raced woman in an aristocracy household, and finding love later. Not many movies have looked at the 18th century at this angel, I believe this will be an eye opener to a part of black history which is never discussed.