In my previous post on ‘On Matters Pertaining to Slavery-' I related Lord Mansfield's role in bringing about the beginning of the end of slavery in Britain, at least as far as the law was concerned, in 1772. Mansfield was a moderate and educated man, but at his home, Kenwood House in Hampstead was a young person who no doubt influenced his thinking: Dido Elizabeth Belle, his illegitimate, mixed-race grand-niece.
John Lindsay was Lord Mansfield’s nephew and a Captain in the Royal Navy, stationed in the Caribbean. When he was 23 or 24, he had a relationship with a Black woman named Maria Belle who bore him a daughter c. 1762. There has been a great deal of speculation about Maria Belle’s status: whether enslaved, captured, free and so on. It is likely she was a slave aboard a captured Spanish ship. These points are moot, as far as I can see, as John Lindsay was sufficiently fond of the child (indicating a continuing relationship with the mother) to send her to his uncle before 1766, when she was baptized in St George’s Church, Bloomsbury. There is no further record of Maria Belle, so far.
John Lindsay’s daughter wasn’t the only child at Kenwood. There was already another little girl there: Elizabeth Murray, an orphaned cousin. Lord and Lady Mansfield were childless and the presence of the two little girls must have been a great boon. However, when Elizabeth Lindsay arrived, it was clear another name would have to be found for her, to differentiate between the two children, and so she was baptized with the name of the African Queen Dido.
The two girls were playmates, although no letters or records have so far come to light about their relationship. The most detailed account of Dido’s presence in the house is from the diary of Thomas Hutchinson, an American Loyalist living in London. In August 1779 he attended a dinner at Kenwood (in reality a late lunch) and had the following to say:
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. She had a very high cap and her wool was much frizzled in her neck, but not enough to answer the large curls now in fashion. She is neither handsome nor genteel - pert enough. I knew her history before, buyt my Lord mentioned it again. Sir John Lindsay having taken her mother prisoner in a Spanish vessel, brought her to England where she was delivered of this girl, of which she was then with child, and which was taken care of by Lord M., and has been educated by his family. He calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for showing fondness for her - I dare not day criminal.
A few years ago there was a cause before his Lordship bro’t by a Black for recovery of his liberty. A Jamaica planter being asked what judgement his Ldship would give? “No doubt” he answered “He will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family.”
She is a sort of Superintendant over the dairy, poultry yard, etc, which we visited. And she was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that, and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said.
Dido would have been about fifteen at the time, so this is no small achievement. That her position within the household was slightly uncertain is no surprise, but the fact that she joined the family in the dining room, and that the guest was taken to see her domestic successes is a mark of how highly they regarded her. Around the same time, the portrait at the head of the gallery was painted. For a long time it was attributed to Johann Zoffany, although I think it is clear he did not paint it (it lacks the crystalline clarity usually present in his work, although the detailing of the costumes is indicative of Zoffany). It is however, a high quality portrait that was painted to hang prominently. Elizabeth Murray wears an aristocratic/pastoral costume of the style of the 1760s, to emphasize her Englishness and a book to show her ladylike tastes. Dido wears a modish and exotic silk-satin dress with a turban (meant to signify her ‘foreign’ status), plus a very expensive pearl earring. She carries a basket of exotic fruit, which may indicate her position within the household as being concerned with the gardens, or supply of food, plus another indication of her ‘exotic’ origins. There have been many readings of this portrait, but I find many of them grasp at straws. My reading is that the portrait is intended almost like a photograph: the two girls are walking in the grounds of Kenwood, and are ‘surprised’ by the artist, who attempts to capture them. Dido laughingly points to her complexion and makes to leave Elizabeth alone, but her cousin and friend attempts to restrain her, smiling for the artist. The moment is captured, as Lord and Lady Mansfield no doubt intended when they had it commissioned.
Dido was a favourite with her great-uncle and acted as his secretary when his sight began to fail. The fact that she was a valuable and well-cared-for member of the family is evident from the account books (one entry for her allowance is in the gallery). In 1770, Edward Lonsdale furnished the family with a bill for ‘a mahogany table for Dido’. A good dentist was employed to extract two of her teeth at some expense in 1789 at 5 shillings each. Her bed of was draped with chintz which was starched and finished by a professional brought in to do the job. Asses milk was purchased for her (presumably over a period of time during an illness) at the vast expense of over £3 in 1791. Her £30 annual allowance was way short of Elizabeth’s but then Elizabeth was an heiress in her own right, and it was still plenty of money for a young girl whose keep was funded anyway.
Elizabeth left Kenwood to marry in 1785, and Dido was left alone, although she continued to scribe for her great-uncle. Her father died in 1788, and left his wife (by whom he had had no children) £1000 to split between John, another illegitimate child and Dido, indicating her awareness and acceptance of his children. Nothing is known about John, but Lindsay’s obituary records Dido as ‘amiable’ and ‘accomplished’. Lord Mansfield wrote a will in 1783 confirming Dido’s freedom and leaving her some money. This has been construed by various historians as meaning she was previously enslaved, but much more likely is that Lord Mansfield wanted to make her status absolutely clear in the event of his death. He died in 1793, and left Dido an annuity.
In December 1793, Dido was married in St George’s Church, Hanover Square, to a John Davinier, very likely a steward at Kenwood. He was not English, having arrived some time in the 1780s, but little else is known about him. It seems likely that they waited until after Lord Mansfield died to marry. She and Davinier had three sons together: twin boys, Charles and Edward in 1795, and William Thomas in 1800. They lived in what is now Ebury Street in Pimlico. Dido died in 1804, aged a little over 40, and was buried in the St George’s burial ground. Her remains were exhumed and reburied, along with all the others in 1960 when the area was redeveloped.
Fifteen years later, in 1975, Dido’s last relative, Harold Daviniere died a free white South African in a land still struggling under apartheid.