Seeing her picture for the first time, I assumed she was a servant. Lucky for us, her status at Kenwood House, London was vastly more remarkable. Her name was Dido Elizabeth Belle, the charge and great-niece of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.
The year of Dido’s birth is alternately cited as 1761 and 1763. The daughter of rear admiral Sir John Lindsay and a possibly enslaved African woman, she was taken by her father to Kenwood. Kenwood was home to William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield and his wife Lady Elizabeth Finch. As Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield presided over numerous cases regarding enslaved Africans. The Murrays had no children and besides fostering Dido, a second great-niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray resided there, too.
Dido’s status at Kenwood was curious. Since her mother was possibly enslaved, Dido technically shared her subjugated rank. Yet though she wasn't treated as part of Mansfield’s family like Elizabeth, her half-cousin, she wasn't regarded as a domestic. She and Elizabeth enjoyed an affectionate relationship; roughly the same age, they were playmates growing-up. During her adolescence, she became Elizabeth’s lady’s companion/personal attendant. She was also taught reading and writing, and granted a stipend. Though she had chores, they were more distinguished responsibilities like supervising the dairy and poultry yards.
Scholars also gained an understanding of Dido’s position from racist ass-clown American loyalist, Thomas Hutchinson. After visiting Kenwood, he recorded in his diary:
Though Hutchinson’s account demonstrates that, despite the family’s caring regard for her, Dido encountered bigotry at Kenwood, her treatment was nonetheless considerably better than other black Britons, enslaved or not.
She departed Kenwood in 1793, shortly after Lord Mansfield’s passing; she’d resided there for thirty years. According to English Heritage, the government organization that supervises Kenwood, Dido married John Davinier. They had three children-twin boys, Charles and John, and another son named William. It’s presumed the family had a comfortable life; from Lord Mansfield Dido inherited £500 outright, £100 per year, and of greatest consequence, her freedom. She also received £1000 (shared with another illegitimate child) from her father, and £100 from her aunt, Lady Margery (or Marjorie) Murray. She may have died July 1804, in her early forties.
Appropriately, Dido’s legacy is as thought-provoking as her life. It’s conjectured Lord Mansfield’s sentiment for Dido might have swayed his decision in James Somerset’s historic case. Though his 1772 judgment, only barred slaveholders from removing slaves from England against their wish, it established the groundwork Parliament’s ultimate abolition of slavery in 1807.
The fate of Dido’s possible last descendant, Harold Davinier, proves another intriguing facet of Dido’s legacy. Born in South Africa, Harold died, says English Heritage, “white and free”, in 1975. Blacks, like his forebear Dido, only started receiving equal rights after apartheid was ended in 1994, #irony.
For more information on Dido Elizabeth Belle, visit:
Slavery and Justice Exhibition at Kenwood House
Inside Out: Abolition of the British Slave Trade special
The Black Figure in 18th-century Art
Kenwood: The Story of Dido Elizabeth Belle
The History Bitch
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