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Chapter 4: Dido Belle’s Letter, 1786 (Black History Month)

This week’s feature for Black History Month is not directly connected to James Somerset’s case but does have an intriguing link with Lord Mansfield, the judge in that case.

Filed among a cache of case papers belonging to Mansfield’s protégé Francis Buller is a letter to Buller dictated by Mansfield on a point of insurance law.  The letter is written by Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761 –1804), the mixed-race daughter of Mansfield’s nephew John Lindsay and Maria Belle, an enslaved woman whom he encountered during his time in the West Indies.

By 1766 Lindsay had returned to England, bringing Maria and Dido with him.  Maria Belle only makes fleeting appearance in the historical record after this but received some financial support from Lindsay.  Her daughter, Dido, by contrast was brought up by Lord Mansfield and his wife in their household.  Childless themselves, the Mansfields were already bringing up Dido’s cousin Elizabeth Murray. The two young women are seen here in this double portrait attributed to by David Martin (1737-1797) which can still be seen in the family’s ancestral home, Scone Palace.

Portrait of Dido Belle & Elizabeth Murray
Courtesy of the Earl of Mansfield/Scone Palace

Visitors to Mansfield’s house at Kenwood commented on the presence of Dido, who received an education and an allowance from Mansfield.  In Mansfield’s will, he bequeathed Dido an annuity and a lump sum and also specifically granted her freedom.  This was less a reflection of her status in the Mansfield household and more a recognition that, despite the judgment in Stewart v Somerset, slavery did still exist in England.

The unusual portrait by Martin hints at the position Dido occupied in the Mansfield household.  Despite being placed behind her cousin Elizabeth and wearing an exotic costume which was something of a cliché in portraits of people of colour, Dido is in no way subservient to Elizabeth.  Contemporaries criticised Mansfield’s decision to adopt Dido – revealing both the prevalence of contemporary prejudice and Mansfield’s willingness to follow his humanitarian instincts – a characteristic evident in his attitude to Dido Belle and James Somerset.

The letter is written in a very clear hand and the great joy of this document is that Dido Belle added a postscript recording that the letter had been dictated to her and apologising (quite unnecessarily) for her handwriting.  What no-one could have guessed when this letter was written in 1786 was that over 200 years later, the writer of the letter would be the focus of historical interest – and even the subject of a feature film – Belle (2013).

The 1786 letter to Francis Buller penned by Dido Belle and dictated by Lord Mansfield

You can view more of the Inn’s Library and Archives material online via our digital collections website.