In 2007 at the Brighton Fringe Festival a play was premiered. The title was Let Justice Be Done and it told the story of a one Dido Elizabeth Belle and her relationship with her Great Uncle William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield. The play was written for the Bicentenary of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 and was performed at the Friends Centre in Brighton and ran for four nights. It was jointly written by two friends who worked together and had a deep interest in history, especially Black history.
Nearly ten years on, the interest in Dido Elizabeth Belle has not waned, a film Belle in 2013 was made, and it did moderately well on the big screen, possibly helped by the script Let Justice Be Done which the authors of the play put on for sale on the self publishing site Lulu.
In 2016 further research by Brighton & Hove Black History into Dido’s life has bought forth her Uncle’s will which was published upon his death in various newspapers including the Reading Mercury, Berkshire on Monday 15 April 1793 which can be accessed via the British Newspaper Archives.
So what do we know about Dido and her Great Uncle William?
We know that Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate daughter of a one John Lindsay, an officer in the British Royal Navy, who at the time of Dido’s birth was a Captain. She was also mixed race, her mother was an African slave known only as Maria Belle. Next to nothing is known about Maria but she and Lindsay must have had some sort of relationship because he willingly provided for the child born of their union.
For reasons known only to himself, Captain Lindsay took Dido to his Uncle, William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield and left her to be raised by him and his wife Elizabeth Murray, the Countess of Mansfield.
Dido was raised at Kenwood House alongside her cousin the Lady Elizabeth Murray who was also a Great-Niece of the Earl and Countess. Possibly Dido was considered a suitable playmate for the young Lady Elizabeth who was of a similar age to her cousin and then later in life could be a companion for her. Dido was not quite aristocracy but nor so it appeared was she a servant in her Great Uncle’s household.
Dido was provided for in the Earl’s will. It could be said that this was a simple act of kindness to the “bastard daughter” of a favoured nephew. But eyewitness accounts of Dido’s place in Kenwood House appears to show that she had some status albeit somewhat ambiguous. She often assisted the Earl by Mansfield by helping him with his correspondence, proving she had been educated to a high standard. She did not have her meals with the family but apparently she joined them for coffee afterwards.
A good friend of the Earl, a one Thomas Hutchinson from America was to have said that that Dido “was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that, and [showed] the greatest attention to everything he said”
Dido’s father died in 1783, by then he was an Admiral in the Royal Navy and he had produced no legitimate heirs only three illegitimate children, two girls and a boy, all three by different women and one of the girls being Dido. It does appear that he did not provide for Dido in his will but one historian, a Gene Adams is of the opinion that he did in fact provide for her and that the Elizabeth mentioned in his will is in fact Dido, as she was baptized Dido Elizabeth Belle in 1766. So far this cannot be proved or disproved as the then Admiral Lindsay had sired a child in Scotland in 1765 who was christened Elizabeth Palmer.
Dido’s inheritance from the Earl was a mere pittance in comparison to others named in the will but she received the 21st century equivalent of £14,000 year (£100 per year in 1793) and a lump sum of £500 which could be like inheriting £70,000 today.
The fact she was provided for at all is surprising in itself. Dido was base born, as well as being the daughter of a slave and therefore in theory a slave herself. She was also the often uncomfortable living proof of the mixing of the races, of love, and rape and that fine line between Master and slave.
In his will the Earl made it very clear that Dido was a free person. No one could make her a slave, her freedom was inked on paper and signed by a man whose power was only superseded by that of the King himself.
But the Earl could only go so far in what he could do for his Great-Niece, at least when the eyes of the public were upon him. It can never be proved and there are many who will deny it but the Somerset v Stewart (1772) case perhaps was the greatest gift he could give to a favoured child he could not publicly acknowledge in a way he acknowledged other family members.
This particular case and his judgement on it put into question the legality of slavery in England itself and though slavery did not end there and then, it did start the long walk to freedom for overall slavery in the English colonies. And, all so it seems for the love of a child who lived with him for 30 years before marrying and going on to have a family of her own.
In his will the Earl did not acknowledge Dido as being a blood relation. That would be a step too far but In a few brisk words he stated “To Dido a black female, [I] confirm her freedom, and give an annuity of £100 for life with £500 in money”
An thus the Earl ensured not only her freedom but a comfortable life for her and her loved ones.