Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Myth of Dido

Dido Elizabeth Belle (L) and half-cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (R).
This picture currently resides at Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland.

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.

Dido’s father was British Navy officer, 
Sir John Lindsay
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:
August 29th 1779
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, but 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 say not 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 was a resident of Kenwood House for 30 years
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.

William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield was 
Dido’s great-uncle and guardian
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


Elissa said...

This is a great article! Do you believe in reincarnation?

The History Bitch said...

Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm not very spiritual, so my feelings about reincarnation are vague. Do you think Dido has been reincarnated as someone? I'd love to know who.

Samantra Allen said...

I do believe in reincarnation

Person with a voice said...

Jenny Idehen for you to make a joke stating the possibility that Dido could be reincarnated as a "white racist" saddens me. Yes, your story sounds difficult but I believe you missed the pointOne voice can make a difference. It is the jokes, like the one you made, or the quiet acceptance that a joke like that is ok is in large continuing the problem with racism. Any person regardless of skin color may be racisist. I suggest you take a deep look within yourself and see where you may help this world in ending such a heinous crime against humanity versus making jokes about it.

Alberto Taylor said...

Racism is only one of many human social-cultural negative constructs, which, in time, tends to peter out or disappear by education, warfare, judicial acction, hybridization,a mixture of all of these etc...unfortunately, the timing might be very long-lived and the overall meaning of human value might be lost. In the long run, the effects can be detrimental both to the victims as to the historical villains in this matter..and , yes, racism easily permeates the human psyche, because, unless society becomes biodiverse and socially diverse, what looks different is usually naturally attacked in most cases. It stands out against other types of discrimination-alienation because the victim (s) does (do) not have to do or say anything, just looking at her or him (them) is enough to illicit a response, usually an attack of some sort. Another humiliating run off of the problem is its contagion even within the victimized society, proceedng to self hatred and denial when possible and helping the spred of this horrendous social disease.

Sarah Minney said...

Please note I have researched Dido's life extensively from original source documents and she DID NOT inherit any money from her father. He had two children in Scotland, Elizabeth & John. This is the Elizabeth mentioned in his will.

Michelle Elizabeth said...

My god jenny, you have a Crazy and strange imagination.

Michelle Elizabeth said...

My god jenny, you have a Crazy and strange imagination.

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