Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle • Picture: Fox UK

Let The Belle Ring

6th June 2014

Most of us associate the abolition of slavery with William Wilberforce – but the foundations for change were laid long before his ground-breaking Act of Parliament, and with unexpected influences. Jennifer Lipman finds out more.

You couldn’t make it up. A girl in the 18th century, the daughter of an Englishman and a woman thought to be his slave, is brought from the Caribbean to live a life of privilege at plush Kenwood House. Her guardian is Lord Mansfield, the judge who oversees one of the crucial milestones in the abolition of slavery. At least… you’d think you couldn’t make it up – but Dido Belle, who is the subject of a new film, is no fictional character.

“Her story is definitely not representative of your average slave,” acknowledges William Murray, scion of the current Mansfield line, and a consultant on Belle. “That’s what makes it so interesting – she moved in circles with the Lord Chief Justice, at the top of society, where the king came to dinner. She was really privileged, but maybe that heightened the anxieties she felt about her colour and the question of slavery.”

Released on 13 June, Belle is produced by Damian Jones, whose credits include The History Boys, and stars Tom Felton and Miranda Richardson. Inevitably, comparisons have been drawn with the US slavery stories 12 Years a Slave and The Butler. However these only go so far, emphasises historian Miranda Kaufman, since slavery was never legal in Britain. “American slavery took place on American plantations,” she says. “British slavery took place in British colonies, in North America until 1776, and the Caribbean.”

Still, Dido’s presence in Britain would not have come about without Britain’s central role in the transatlantic slave trade. And central role it was: according to one estimate, British ships carried 3.4 million enslaved Africans to the Americas. “Britain was the largest player in the slave trade by the late 18th century”, explains Dr Andrew Hann, English Heritage historian and co-author of Slavery and the British Country House. “Only the Portuguese, who carried on the trade for almost 50 years after Britain, carried more enslaved Africans to the Americas.”

And it was lucrative, too. “British involvement expanded rapidly in response to the demand for labour to cultivate sugar,” says Dr Hann. The Georgian-era trading economy was not necessarily wholly dependent on the slave trade, he says, but many key trading commodities – tobacco and coffee as well as sugar – were slavery-related, while iron wares and textiles were traded in Africa for slaves.

“Many country houses and their contents were paid for, at least in part, by the proceeds of slavery generated wealth,” Dr Hann observes, adding the caveat that “this was generally only one element of landed income available to owners.”

Belle, however, was not a slave. She was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay, who handed her custody to his childless uncle, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield. Dido grew up in high society, along with her cousin Elizabeth, Mansfield’s other niece. Dido’s advantaged position is made clear in a distinguished portrait that hangs in Scone Palace in Perthshire, in which she and her cousin are seen as equals.

And according to Kathy Chater, author of a book on black people in England during the period of the Slave Trade, Dido’s position in the household (she appears not to have dined with the family, for example, although she joined them in the drawing room afterwards) would have resulted as much from her illegitimacy as from her skin colour.

“Georgian society was more open, people recognised that there were illegitimate children, and you treated them reasonably well… [but] you just didn’t treat them like your legitimate children,” she says. “I think if you did a study of illegitimate children in these households you would find that Dido was same as everyone else. That she happens to be black is why people are interested in her [now].”

“The Americas were the exception,” she adds. “But because America has done so much work on slavery, everyone assumes it’s the same in Europe.” If anything, she says, there was more public prejudice against the Irish and the French.

Georgian Britain – unlike the Victorian era, when scientific racism rose to prominence – was not as overtly intolerant as America. “There was no legal implication if you were black in this country at that time,” says Chater. “You had people like (composer) Ignatius Sancho who had the vote on property qualifications.”

Chater points out that since few public records directly identify whether a person was black, “we don’t really know how rare Dido’s story was”. But we do know it wasn’t just her. There are records of other black individuals flying high in Georgian society, among them Nathaniel Wells, who owned slaves himself, and went on to become the first black Sherriff in Monmouthshire.

“Dido would have been far from unique, though few others are so well known,” says Dr Hann. “Many were the offspring of colonial landowners or sea captains and slave women, who were subsequently brought up in Britain as members of the upper or middle classes. It also became fashionable to have African servants, and many are depicted in family portraits.”

Still, points out Kaufman, a “key point is that Dido was of mixed parentage, which is why she was living at Kenwood.” In any case, hers was not the majority experience for black people in Britain at the time – especially black slaves brought to Britain by their white masters… For while slavery was not legal here, neither was it expressly illegal, and Britain was no paradigm. “Slavery in the Caribbean colonies was every bit as widespread and cruel as in North America,” says Dr Hann.

But in 1772, the James Somerset case went to court. This case – over which Lord Mansfield presided, thus giving the young Belle something of a ringside seat – and a later one, also a landmark ruling on slavery, forms a backdrop to Belle. Somerset was an escaped slave, brought from the colonies to Britain. His owner tried to contest that he remained a slave, but Lord Mansfield ruled that he did not.

“The point he makes is that there are no laws relating to slavery in Britain, and without them people cannot be slaves,” says Chater. “The Mansfield judgement stopped plantation owners bringing their slaves to Britain,” she explains, for they would not be able to forcibly take them back to the colonies.

Sarah Gadon as Elizabeth Murray and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle • Picture: Fox UK

Throughout the ruling, Dido was living at Kenwood, an irony which Lord Mansfield could hardly have overlooked. “Having this girl in his household, essentially his adopted daughter, would have made his position in court listening to this case very interesting,” says Murray.

The case sparked a furious campaign on both sides, dividing the political classes. “There were powerful vested interests in parliament in support of slavery,” says Dr Hann. “Many MPs had slave trading interests, or represented boroughs where slavery was important.” And Lord Mansfield’s ruling was controversial, he says, because there was a general uneasiness about the challenge to aristocratic property rights associated with the idea of abolishing slavery.

Nor was it was the end of the road; it would be another 35 years before William Wilberforce successfully championed the Slave Trade Act. Wilberforce remains the most famous figure associated with the slavery era in Britain – and, indeed, often the only thing we know about Britain’s role in the slave trade is his influence on its ending.

“There is a tendency to focus on abolition, without dwelling on what happened before” agrees Kaufman. “Part of it is that, unlike in America, the British Isles were not the site of plantation slavery, and so the legacy is less obvious. It’s also an uncomfortable subject for most people of varying ancestry.”

But it is a discussion that she and others feel deserves more prominence. After all, Britain’s wealth, our country estates, and our international standing owe much to the slave trade.
Murray says he hopes that Belle will start a conversation about this part of British history, just as 12 Years a Slave was seen to do in America. And on a personal level, he is delighted to see Belle’s personal story come to screen. “Most people relate the end of slavery to Wilberforce,” he says. “Hopefully the film will spur some interest in what happened 30 years earlier.

“A few years ago my sister and I were chatting about which members of the family have stories that would make the best film,” says William Murray. “The two we always came down to were the first Earl, and Dido. Now it’s happening, and it’s absolutely fantastic.”

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