The red sandstone Georgian Gothic styled Scone Palace in the city of Perth, Scotland was the crowning place of Scottish kings and it was the family home of the Earls of Mansfield. The Scone Palace is a treasury of several objects of art including porcelains, furniture and paintings. Among those historical paintings, you will find the above portrait of the two cousins, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Elizabeth Murray, little nieces of Lord Mansfield.
This portrait speaks a lot through its many details that one might overlook on a first quick glance. You clearly can see two elegant women of the 18th century dressed in fine silk and pearls at the Kenwood House, London, where beyond them to the left, a glimpse of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the rest of the Georgian cityscape can be seen. Nothing unusual about that; however, what makes it different from its other neighbouring portraits in Scone Palace, as well as other portraits depicting that era, is that one of the ladies, Dido, is of mixed race.
This makes you ask, who is Dido Elizabeth Belle, and how did she come about to be such a figure painted together with a white woman, both dressed in equally expensive garments at a time when African people were portrayed for no other reason but to accentuate the status of their white masters? This question, we will be answering shortly. On the other hand, other questions such as; why is Dido pointing at her cheek? Is she simply drawing attention to her dimpled smile or is there more to that gesture, such as drawing attention to her skin colour? Is there a meaning behind Dido holding a fruit dish, while Elizabeth, the other lady, is holding a book? And why does Elizabeth appear to be somewhat placid, while Dido’s features are emitting such warmth, enthusiasm, confidence and an apparent openness to life?
With the identity of the painter being unknown up till now (a couple of unconfirmed guesses have been made though), these questions remain a mystery, and the painting remains thought-provoking raising lots of speculations and a myriad of possible interpretations but none of which we can confirm. All we can do now is state the facts that formulate Dido’s story.
John Lindsay was a naval officer who came from a well-connected Scottish family. In 1764, he was knighted and later on became an admiral. In 1761, John became a father to his eldest among a number of illegitimate offspring (a total of 3 girls and 2 boys from 5 different women), and she was named Dido Elizabeth Belle. Five years after Belle’s birth, she was baptized in St George’s Church in Bloomsbury, England, and her mother was named as Maria Bell. It is said that Maria was an African slave transported in a Spanish galleon, which Lindsay had captured during the Battle of Havana. Dido’s father (who was known as Sir John Lindsay at the time) was not present at the ceremony, and his surname was not bestowed upon her. However, upon Maria’s death and with John’s constant voyages overseas serving the crown, he asked his uncle, the Earl of Mansfield to raise Belle alongside her cousin, Elizabeth. Not only did the Earl just raise Dido, but he raised her in a manner befitting her aristocratic blood line.
Some accounts state that the name Dido was given to her by the Earl of Mansfield. It so happens that the name Dido was the name of the founder and first queen of the city of Carthage (in the modern day Tunisia).This wouldn’t be surprising though, given the fact that the Earl of Mansfield was strongly against slavery, it is possible that he could have wanted to give her such a powerful name.
The circumstances of Dido’s birth and heritage at the time, made an outsider’s life such as hers a bit difficult. However, she developed a strong bond with Lady Elizabeth, who was an orphaned family member taken in by the Lord and Lady of Mansfield. The two girls became more like sisters, and that bond provided an anchor of encouragment that she needed in a strange land.
The Earl of Mansfield, Dido’s uncle, was the highest judge in the land. He made groundbreaking decisions that became the foundation to help abolish the slave trade in Great Britain at the time. He presided over the famous case of the runaway slave, “James Somerset”. His ruling was that a master could not take a slave out of Britain by force. Commenting on slavery in general he said: “Slavery is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it.”
It is said that Dido assisted him in this mission by writing letters and doing other work. This made her an important yet a little-known part of history. Moreover, the task of helping with the Earl’s correspondence was a task normally assigned to a clerk or a male secretary, which indicates both her social intelligence as well as her uncle’s trust in her.
Dido was raised, and spent almost three decades at the Kenwood House estate under the care of her uncle the Earl. At the house, Dido received an annual allowance, a proper education and later on as an adult, she managed the estate’s poultry and dairy yards, a responsibility and a privilege given to noble ladies of the household.
Dido was left with a small inheritance from the deceased Lord Mansfield, but nothing from her father. Furthermore, Lord Mansfield declared in his will that Dido was a free gentlewoman and an heiress with an outright sum along with an annuity that he left her.
In 1793 and five months after the Earl died, she married a French gentleman’s steward by the name of John Davinier and together they had three boys. Two of those boys, Charles and William, grew up to be employed by the East India Company. Charles Davinier later on joined the 15th Native Infantry as a lieutenant and by the 30th Native Infantry he held the rank of captain, which was around 1836, long after his mother died. Dido Elizabeth Belle passed away in 1804 at the age of 43.
Despite the relatively limited information we have about Dido Elizabeth Belle’s personality, her story is highly inspiring that it was portrayed in many forms of media, including several plays, two movies along with it being an inspirational theme to several novels and stories.
- Simon Schama, Rough Crossings (London: BBC Books, 2005) ISBN-13: 978-0060539160
- Adams, Gene (1984). “Dido Elizabeth Belle/ A Black Girl at Kenwood/ an account of a protegée of the 1st Lord Mansfield”. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
- Felix Cross, “Belle: An Unexpected Journey” Archived 17 April 2015 at the Wayback Machine.