Dido Elizabeth Belle: Indirect Influence on the Abolishment

The last article of March has a woman as its topic who differs from all the previous ones we presented to you: Dido Elizabeth Belle. 📝

“Why is she different?” , you may ask. It is due to the fact that her story is quite an extraordinary one, and we can’t be sure of her actual impact on society. It is speculated if this woman, who was born as a daughter of an enslaved mother Maria Belle, and an aristocratic Royal Navy officer, Sir John Lindsay, was an indirect influence on the abolishment of slavery. As the beloved niece of a Lord Mansfield she might have been a personal reason for him to support the efforts to end slavery. That she was accepted into the family of the rich aristocratic family is already quite extraordinary, but that she was also treated as an equal to the rest of the family is one of the reasons wanted to add her to our timeline. How do we know that she held such a position? There is a painting that tells us more about her. 🎨

Do you want to know what she did and how it was possible for her to reach such a position in society? Just read the article below!

Dido Elizabeth Belle | * ca. 1761/63 | † July 1804 | British West Indies| British Heiress, Member of the Lindsay Family of Evelix

Dido Elizabeth Belle was born in the British West Indies in 1761. She was a child of Maria Belle, an enslaved African woman, and Sir John Lindsay, an aristocratic Royal Navy officer. He probably met Maria on a Spanish ship and had taken her as a concubine. 

Belle was enslaved from birth, because her mom was a slave of color and her dad a white aristocratic man. When Dido was around six years old, she parted ways with her mother and was sent to live in England. There she was raised by her great-uncle William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, and his wife. It was very unusual at this time for a mixed-race child whose mother was a former enslaved woman, to be raised as part of an aristocratic British family.

She grew up in Kenwood, a royal estate outside of London, where she got royal education. She also served as the earl’s legal secretary, which was a rather unusual responsibility for a woman at that time. It has been said that she was almost treated the same as Lady Elizabeth Murray, another great-niece raised by the couple.

An important mark in history was a painting made of Dido in 1779 by Scottish painter David Martin. In the painting Dido and her cousin Elizabeth are shown, both dressed in finery. She wore an expensive silk gown and a pearl necklace. What was striking is that Dido was positioned as the equal of her white companion, rather than a servant or slave which was the case in most paintings at that time. Because of this, Dido received great public interest over the years and this may have influenced her great-uncle Lord Mansfield. As Lord Chief Justice he was involved in making decisions about the legality of the slave trade. 

Although it’s not sure whether his affection for Dido influenced his decisions, he definitely played a role in the abolishment of slavery. In 1772 he wrote in his summing about the Somerset case that slavery was ‘adious’ and he made sure to protect Dido’s rights, clearly stating that she was a free woman. Although Dido was raised quite well, she still got discriminated against for her skin-color. The times that the Murray’s treated her differently was when there were formal dinners with her family members, which she wasn’t allowed to take part of. She also received way less allowance and inheritance than her white cousin Elizabeth after Mansfield’s death. 

In her later life Dido married John Davinier, a steward originating from France. Together they had three sons and lived as a family in Pimlico, London. Dido lived there till she died in 1804 at the age of 42. 


Author: Jitske de Vries
Image: Amanda Winnemuller

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