16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle

Trista - November 3, 2018

Today, Dido Elizabeth Belle is England’s first aristocrat who was not only of African descent but born into slavery. Belle grew up in a time where the American Colonies were forming as the United States of America and England still had slavery. As a young girl, she was sent to live with a Prestigious English family, who not only raised her like their own child but raised her with education and wealth.

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Belle from the 2013 movie, Belle. David Appleby / Vulture.

16. Belle Was Far From the Only Person of African Origin in England, but Still Dealt With Racism

While Belle’s whole life story makes her unique, the fact that she was mulatto does not. In fact, it is estimated that about 10,000 people of African descent lived in London by 1761, which was the year Belle was born. On top of this, countless children were mixed race. Therefore, by the time Belle got to England, around four years later, she was far from the only mulatto child in the city. However, this does not mean everyone liked Belle, or she escaped racism.

Belle was reportedly treated differently both inside and outside of her home. But it was not just Belle who dealt with society’s disgust. Her guardians, William and Elizabeth Murray, also had to deal with being looked down upon by members of the community. On top of this, they had to watch Belle grow up in a world where her race was enslaved. Furthermore, to keep up their prestigious appearance at the top of society, they needed to treat Belle differently, especially in front of the public and guests of their home.

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Belle movie banner, moviescenequeen.

15. The Truth About Belle’s Half-Siblings Is Coming Into Focus

Much of the Dido Elizabeth Belle research is still in its infancy. After all, descendants of the Murray’s did not look into Belle’s history until the mid-1990s. Furthermore, Belle did not become a favorite topic for many historical researchers until the last decade. Before the following information, people figured Belle had at least one sibling because her father’s will left his estate to a John and Elizabeth. However, there was no mention of a Belle. This detail left people to wonder if he called her Elizabeth. However, many do believe that he did not mention Belle because she was provided for through Lord Mansfield and his family.

Today, we know that Belle had at least two living siblings who were younger. They were also, technically, only her half-siblings. Less than a year after Belle was born, a John Edward Lindsay was born in February of 1762. His Baptismal record, dated November 6, 1762, shows Sir John Lindsay and Mary Vallet as his parents. Unfortunately, he passed a month later. Baptism records for an Elizabeth show her father as Sir John Lindsay and her mother Martha G. Elizabeth. Sir John’s son, John Lindsay, was born in 1767. It is believed that these are the two children Sir John Lindsay mentions in his will.

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804) was an illegitimate daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman known as Maria Belle. Pinterest.

14. Over the Last Decade, Belle Has Started to Get a Lot of Media Attention

Over the last decade, Belle has become popular with the media. Filmmaker Jason Young was the first to showcase Belle on the television with his short period pieces called Kenwood, which came out in 2006. Then Margaret Busby wrote and produced a stage play titled An African Cargo in 2007, which focused on the Zong Massacre, Lord Mansfield, and mentioned Belle. That same year, Belle was featured in an operatic trilogy called Spirit Songs, where Abigail Kelly portrayed her.

However, probably one of the most popular pieces where Dido Belle is depicted in is the 2013 film, Belle. Directed by Amma Asante, the film explores Belle’s life, especially while she lived in Kenwood. The movie was inspired by the painting of Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray. While the motion picture is based on what is known about Belle’s life, not everything is accurate. For instance, Belle’s husband is a lawyer in the film when he was really a steward. Also, the cinema is a period drama and was made for Hollywood and entertainment.

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Belle and her father, from the 2013 movie Belle. tvseans.

13. Belle’s Parents Probably Lived in Pensacola, Florida, Where Her Mother Owned Land

Belle’s mother, Maria Belle, was taken from her native land and forced into a slave ship. Belle’s father, Sir John Lindsay, was an officer on board the vessel which captured the slave ship. While historians are not sure exactly where Belle’s mother went after the ship arrived in the British West Indies, we do know Belle’s parents made it to Florida. Belle and her mother accompanied Lindsay to Pensacola, Florida, in 1764. At the time, Belle would have been around three years old.

In 1772, years after Belle was sent to Lord Mansfield, Sir John Lindsay gave Maria Belle a house. Archeologist Margo Stringfield found historical documents related to this while going through Maria Belle’s house. Stringfield, who works for the University of Florida, found a 1772 document signed by Sir John Lindsay. This document deeded a lot in Pensacola to Maria Belle, who was also a freed slave. As Springfield noted, this was very unusual because men did not deed land to freed slaves.

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Sir John Lindsay, Belle’s father. Wikipedia.

12. As a Young Girl, Belle Was Brought to London by Her Father to Live With His Relatives

No one is sure why Belle was sent to live with Lord Mansfield and his wife. What we do know is that when Belle was brought to London by her father, about the age of four, she was considered a slave. Because Belle’s mother was a slave when Belle was born, this meant Belle was born into slavery. Some people speculate Belle was brought to England because she would not be sold and would live a better life with the Murray’s. Even if she was still considered a slave at Lord Mansfield’s home, she was treated like family.

Others believe Lord Mansfield took Belle in because he was also an outsider and she was family. Whatever the reason, we know around 1765, Lindsay boarded a ship to England and brought Belle with him. While we are unaware of how this went down, we do know Lindsay planned to leave Belle with William Murray, who was the 1st Earl of Mansfield. This title actually meant that taking in Belle was not an easy task for Mr. and Mrs. Murray. In fact, it made many people scoff at Lord Mansfield. But, even so, Lord Mansfield and his wife took Belle in and loved her as their own.

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray from the film Belle. theafricanchannel.

11. Belle’s Mother Was a Slave, and Her Father Was a Naval Officer

Belle’s father, Sir John Lindsay, was a member of the Lindsay family of Evelix. His father was the 3rd Baronet, Sir Alexander Lindsay and his mother’s name was Amelia. Lindsay and Belle’s mother, Maria, met when Lindsay and his crew captured the slave ship she was aboard in the Caribbean. While it is likely that Maria and Lindsay had a relationship on the captured Spanish slave ship, historians cannot be sure. Furthermore, they also cannot be sure that the relationship was consensual from both parties. But, they do know that Belle was born shortly after Maria’s capture.

While more is known about Belle’s father than her mother, it is her mother who is the only name on Belle’s Baptism record. Why Sir John Lindsay was not listed on the document is unknown; some believe it is because Maria and Lindsay’s relationship had to be secret. Maria was a slave and Lindsay was a naval officer, who was later knighted and promoted to admiral. The two in a public relationship was not socially acceptable. Furthermore, records show that Lindsay had children with other women, one a few months after Belle was born. Many believe Maria was Lindsay’s concubine until they stopped traveling together in 1774.

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
William Murray, Lord Mansfield. Joshua Reynolds / Public Domain / Wikimedia / Westminister / ImageGear, AccuSoft Corp.

10. Belle’s Guardian and Great Uncle was Lord Mansfield, Who Despised Slavery

Belle was only around four years old when her father, Sir John Lindsay, brought her from Florida to London. Lindsay was related to the 1st Earl of Mansfield, William Murray. Murray was Lindsay’s uncle and the highest-ranking judge in England. While Murray and his wife knew what taking in a girl of African origin could do their reputation, they took Belle in any way. Some people believe Lord Mansfield took Belle in to help protect her from the horrors of American slavery.

Many people also believe Lord Mansfield agreed to care for Belle because he despised the institution of slavery. Lord Mansfield often made rulings which sided with the abolitionists. For instance, in 1772, he ruled that slave masters had no jurisdiction over escaped slaves in England. Furthermore, the escaped slaves could not be removed from England’s soil unless they wanted to go. Today, this decision is considered a critical moment in the abolitionists battle to end the slave trade. People also believe that Lord Mansfield made these decisions because of Belle. Some think he was trying to make the world a better place for his great niece.

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Drawing of Thomas Hutchinson. Boston1775.

9. Thomas Hutchinson’s Discussed Belle’s Life in His Diaries

Because Lord Mansfield was the highest ranked judge in Britain, with his official title of Lord Chief Justice of Britain, he had many guests over at his home. Several of these guests were from all over the world, including former Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, visited Kenwood in August of 1779. Hutchinson, who kept a diary, wrote about meeting Belle. It is through his journals where we learned much about Belle’s private life at Kenwood.

In his diary, Hutchinson wrote how he first met Belle. He wrote, “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. He also noted that Belle “was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said.”

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Kenwood as it stands today. Wikipedia.

8. Belle Lived in the Top 5% of Society, but Always Battled Racism

William Murray and his wife, Elizabeth, lived in a mansion known as Kenwood. It is located and Hampstead, London and served as a home to not only Murray but also other families of Britain’s highest society. Murray bought the house in 1754 and later remodeled it. It was this home which Belle’s father, Lindsay, brought her to live. While Belle lived a luxurious life and was well cared for until her dying day by Murray and his family, she was still the victim of racism inside and outside of Kenwood.

During Belle’s life, Britain still allowed slavery. And while she lived in a society with many other people of African origin, this did not mean she did not suffer from racism. Not only did people scoff at Belle and sometimes the Murray’s because Belle was black, but they also mocked because she lived very well. As William Murray, a descendant of the Murray’s stated, “Dido was very, very privileged. She was in the top 5%, perhaps the top 1%, in terms of how she lived, her allowance, her dress, her education.”

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Drawing of the Zong Massacre. Guestlist.

7. Belle Knew About Abolition and the Cruel Treatment of Blacks, Including the Zong Massacre

Belle was believed to have such beautiful handwriting that she became secretary to Lord Mansfield. As his secretary, Belle would often write letters for her great uncle. This notion leads many historians to believe that Belle knew about what society was doing to blacks around the world. This concept also means that Belle could have readily known about one of Britain’s worst massacres in history, the Zong massacre. In 1781, a slave ship threw 132 slaves overboard. The ship’s owner claimed the vessel had run out of water and the crew had to sacrifice some slaves to save the 300 others on board.

Now they wanted their insurers to pay up for the lost “cargo.” However, the insurance company rejected the claim, which then found itself on Lord Mansfield’s desk. “It’s a very shocking case,” Mansfield told Belle to write. The legal argument hinged on whether the slaves had been killed out of necessity or whether, as suspected, they had become diseased during the journey and murdered for the insurance payout. In the end, the owners couldn’t prove necessity and the claims were dropped. Furthermore, for the rest of her days, Belle knew about the massacre as she was Lord Mansfield’s secretary at the time.

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Belle and Thomas from the 2013 movie Belle. Standard.

6. Belle Lived In Kenwood Until She Married and Started Her Own Family

While reports do conflict on when exactly Belle moved out of Kenwood, we do know it was around the time of Lord Mansfield’s death in 1793. Some reports claim she moved out a few months before he died, while she was still carrying for him. However, other reports claim she did not move out and marry until after his death. Either way, historians do know that Belle continued to live in Kenwood after Mrs. Elizabeth Murray’s death in 1784 and took care of Mr. Murray until his death about nine years later.

Belle married John Davinier, a steward. According to a descendant of the Murray’s, William Murray, the couple went on to have three children. They had twins, Charles and John, and also William Thomas. Descendant William Murray has also noted that at least one of her children went on to work for the East India Company. Historians also know that in Lord Mansfield’s will, he not only made sure Belle was freed but also gave her an annuity of $100 a year.

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, Sarah Gadon, Penelope Wilton, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle 2013. imdb.

5. Belle Was Not the Only Child to Grow Up In Kenwood

When Sir John Lindsay brought his then four-year-old daughter, Belle, to live in Kenwood, the Murray’s had another child already living with them. This child was a year older than Belle, born in 1760, and named Lady Elizabeth Murray. The young child’s mother had just passed away, and her father was serving as ambassador to Austria and France, so he could not care for his young daughter. Therefore, Mr. and Mrs. William Murray took in little Lady Elizabeth Murray, who was a cousin of Belle.

With Lord Mansfield and his wife not having any children of their own, they felt Belle would make a good playmate for Lady Elizabeth, and often explained to people that this is why they had Belle living in their home. Belle and Lady Elizabeth formed a very close bond; however, they were also treated differently. For example, Belle received only $30 a year allowance while Lady Elizabeth received $100. But, even so, it is reported that Lord Mansfield and his wife raised and cared for both the girls like they were their own children.

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Kenwood Library. English Heritage / ES.

4. In Private Belle Was Treated Like a Family Member but Not In Public

As the top 5%, or possibly even higher, Belle lived a life of privilege that was very rare for a person of her origin in the late 1700s. But even so, her life was not entirely like everyone else, especially when looking at her companion Lady Elizabeth Murray. For instance, if the Murray’s had guests over, Belle could not eat with the family. However, she was also too high class to eat with the servants. While no one knows where Belle ate when the Murray’s had guests, some speculate she merely had to eat in her room.

However, this does not mean that Belle did not join the part later. As Thomas Hutchinson wrote in his diary, Belle entered the family festivities after the meal. She was usually seen by the guests when they would meet in the library or parlor for a social visit after the dish. Belle would also be known to show up while the family and guests went for walks around the Kenwood grounds. But this also seems only to have happened when the Murray’s had guests. When it was just family, Belle was with the family for a meal and all other activities.

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Belle from the 2013 movie, Belle. btchflcks.

3. Belle Had Many Responsibilities While Living at Kenwood

While Belle was treated as part of the family and reportedly had a stable relationship with the Murray’s, especially Lord Mansfield, she also held a very unusual role in the house. While historians are not entirely sure if Belle was technically a slave during her time in Kenwood, though Lord Mansfield’s will supports she was still a slave, historians do note that Belle had many responsibilities in the home. As Thomas Hutchinson stated in his diary, Lord Mansfield would often turn to Belle for several household duties. However, there are also records that she was paid.

As Belle got older, she started running Kenwood’s dairy farm and the poultry yard. On top of this, she was also secretary to Lord Mansfield, which was very rare for a woman, as usual, this was a man’s job. Then, after Lord Mansfield’s wife passed away, Belle continued to live in Kenwood where she not only took care of many daily duties but also Lord Mansfield in his declining health. For example, it is reported that Lord Mansfield suffered from rheumatism, so Belle would often read the newspaper to him in the mornings.

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay (1761-1804) and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray (1760-1825). The original is in Scone Palace, Perthshire, Scotland. David Martin / Wikipedia.

2. The Painting That Tells the Tale of England’s First Black Aristocrat

Since the mid-1990s, people have looked over the painting of Belle and her companion, Lady Elizabeth Murray. It is very unusual for women of African origin to be painted in the way Belle is. Generally, people of African ancestry were added as accessories during Belle’s time because blacks were not thought to be equal to whites. However, whenever someone looks at the painting of Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray, it is evident that the two girls are fond of each and at a near-same status.

At first, people thought Johann Zoffany was the painter, but it was later revealed that it was David Martin. In the painting, you can see Lady Elizabeth reaching out for Belle. On top of this, Belle is slightly taller than Lady Elizabeth. Typically, people of African origin were painted as shorter. Furthermore, Belle is looking straight forward, which was also rare of the time of this painting. Both are dressed in fancy attire, and Belle can also be seen smiling. According to Amma Asante, director of the 2013 movie, Belle, “This painting flipped tradition and everything the 18th century told us about portraiture.”

16 Facts in the Life of the Almost Forgotten Life of One of England’s First Black Aristocrats, Dido Elizabeth Belle
Belle, USA / UK 2013.
Posted by keith1942 on July 16, 2014. cinepages.

1. No One Knew Who the Black Person was in the Portrait Until the Mid-1990s

If it wasn’t for a tourist who was taking a tour of Scone Palace and questioned that famous portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray and Belle, people still might not know the black girl in the picture. It was hung at Scone Palace for decades and labeled with one name: Lady Elizabeth Murray. As descendant William Murray explained, “It was only when my grandmother was taking some tourists around in the early ‘90s that one of them who had heard of Dido questioned the portrait.”

Before this, the family had not investigated who the other girl was. However, once the tourist inquired if the other girl in the portrait was, in fact, Dido Elizabeth Belle, the family begin digging further into their history. Through this research, and getting in contact with other people, such as Archeologist Margo Stringfield, the family uncovered that Dido Elizabeth Belle lived was a great-niece to Lord Mansfield and lived with the family at Kenwood, making Belle England’s first black aristocrat.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The First Black Aristocrat & The Massacre That Helped Lead To The Abolition Of Slavery.” Rachel Souerbry, Ranker. 2018.

“Dido Elizabeth Belle.” Wikipedia.

“Belle, Dido Elizabeth (1761-1804). Ayodale Braiman, Blackpast.

“Dido Belle: Britain’s First Black Aristocrat.” Nisha Lilia Diu, The Telegraph. July 2016.

“Real Story Of ‘Belle’ Has Pensacola Connections.” Sandra Averheart, wuwf. May 2014.

“Dido Elizabeth Belle – we reveal NEW information about her siblings.” Joanne Major, All things Georgian. June 2018.

“Dido Elizabeth Belle – her story.” Scone Palace. 2018.