History & Film: Georgian Race Relations on a Personal and Societal Scale in Belle

by Bethany Latham

Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray on the grounds at Kenwood House, near London, circa 1779

Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray on the grounds at Kenwood House, near London, circa 1779

I’ll admit it upfront: I’m a sucker for just about any kind of period piece, especially if it’s a textile feast for the eyes, which, from the trailers I’d seen, the British film Belle promised to be. An even more shocking admission: there is something about a man with a well-turned calf in 18th-century garb – just does it for me. (If I cast back into the dark psychological recesses of my formative years, there may be some connection to nine-year-old Bethany’s crush on Jim Hawkins, portrayed by the ill-fated Bobby Driscoll, from the 1950 movie version of Treasure Island.) But I digress.

Obviously, Belle is more than just a pretty frock flick – for all its glossiness, it is a film about race, about identity, about slavery. And yet, it is not a typical slavery piece; the primary themes deal with the other in the midst of the establishment, societal norms and belonging – but the slavery film as it most often manifests in America is nowhere in evidence here. Instead, there is much that will be familiar to Regency romance fans: beautiful women in gorgeous gowns being put on the marriage market, all the while hoping “real love” will directly correlate with wealth and breeding in the form of the perfect husband. One of these beautiful women just happens to be the mixed race offspring of a British aristocrat. It is almost as if this is a film about slavery…with no slaves. All such events take place offstage, so it is couched in terms more rhetorical and abstract. As a review in the New Statesman put it, “Belle is a story of race seen from an oblique angle.”1

The historical Dido Elizabeth Belle was born sometime in the early 1760s, the daughter of a West Indian slave, Maria Belle, allegedly taken prisoner from a captured Spanish vessel by a British naval officer, Sir John Lindsay. The result of this union, Dido, was left in the care of Lindsay’s uncle, William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield, also Lord Chief Justice of England, and his wife. The childless couple also had in their care another great-niece, Elizabeth Murray, and at their palatial estate near London, Kenwood House, Dido spent her formative years in a world of privilege and comfort as a companion to Elizabeth. A portrait of the two young women has drawn much scrutiny, as it is one of the few from the period to show a person of color in equal status with a white sitter. As Amma Asante, Belle’s director, noted, “For centuries, black people were basically accessories in paintings, there to express the status of white people. I knew this was something very different.”2

In Asante’s film, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) exists in a sort of limbo – she is loved and respected by her kindly uncle, Lord Mansfield (portrayed to perfection by the inimitable Tom Wilkinson), and is treated as an equal within the insular family. But when outsiders are present, such as at a dinner party, Dido is relegated to eating alone, so as not to make things “awkward” for the guests. This duality exists on a number of levels. Dido supposedly occupies a lesser social position than her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), due not only to the color of her skin but also to the fact that she’s illegitimate (and in the film, one is never sure, from a social perspective, which disadvantage is considered “worse” by those around her). Dido is, conversely, in a far better situation in other ways. She is more intelligent and discerning, and she is also in a superior position from a financial standpoint, due to the large inheritance her father has left her. Thus, while Lord Mansfield is certain it will prove overwhelmingly difficult to find a husband for Dido and plans to set her up as a kind of housekeeper, as one would a spinster aunt, it turns out that her comparatively poor cousin Elizabeth is the one who has difficulties while Dido is the first to be offered an eminently suitable match. This match comes in the form of a second son of the aristocracy who is willing to overlook Dido’s “deficiencies” and is lasciviously attracted to her because she’s “exotic” – both of which he expresses in an insultingly patronizing manner. In true frock-flick fashion, Belle offers the protagonist a choice between suitors: one society’s version of what she should want, the other her “true love.” Enter John Davinier (Sam Reid), a penniless legal apprentice working for her great-uncle. Davinier not only sees Dido as an equal, but possesses a righteous, burning indignation against the institution of slavery, and wishes to open Dido’s sheltered eyes to the truth of the world around her. He starts by explaining the legal case upon which her great-uncle is about to sit in judgment. As the film would have it, Mansfield’s single ruling could effectively dismantle the slave trade in England. In point of fact, matters were much more complicated.

The screenplay, of course, presents a simplistic version of events and plays fast and loose with historical fact. Dido was never left anything by her father,3 while Elizabeth was given a substantial inheritance as well as being the first to marry, happily and well. Dido occupied a less sure place in society; within the Murray family, it appears that she was treated well but, as was often the case with illegitimate family members, as somewhat subordinate. Outside the Murray family, she was viewed as a curiosity at best, and at worst with hostility. A dinner visitor at Kenwood in 1779 wrote, “A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies…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. Lord M…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.”4 This blatant reference to Dido’s illegitimacy, innuendo, and thinly veiled disdain was shared by many, who questioned the Murrays’ decision to raise, educate, and support Dido in a near-equal fashion to their other ward. Dido even served as a sort of secretary to her powerful great-uncle, a position generally reserved for ambitious young men. But the impact she had on the decisions Mansfield made in court is anyone’s guess. Belle offers one perspective: that Lord Mansfield’s ruling on a case of particular import to the issue of slavery in Great Britain owed all to the influence of Dido. Thus, the approach to the question of race in Belle is two-pronged – there is Dido’s personal struggle to find happiness and her place in Georgian society, and the larger issue of slavery as it pertains to social and economic conditions in Georgian England. I confess, for me, the former was the more engaging and moving, handled in an eminently nuanced manner. To address the latter, Belle focuses on a court case over which Lord Mansfield presided, that of the King’s Bench appeal regarding the slave ship Zong.

In 1781, the Zong set sail with over 400 enslaved Africans onboard, far more than a ship its size was intended to carry. Two versions of subsequent events exist: 1. Inadvertent navigational errors resulted in the ship failing to stop at port and adequately provision water. In order to save the rest of the “cargo,” approximately 150 slaves were thrown overboard so that the remainder would have enough water to survive the voyage. 2. Due to appalling conditions, slaves aboard the Zong quickly became diseased; the crew knew they would not sell upon arrival, so the sick Africans were thrown into the sea. The crew then came up with the pretext of the water emergency. Ignoring the modern-day nausea provoked by the cruel and intentional murder of 150 human beings, the integral Georgian legal point between these two versions is that, if the first scenario were true, the ship’s owners could claim £30 a head in insurance under the maritime legal principle of “general average” – when part of a ship’s cargo must be sacrificed in an emergency to save the whole. The owners made this claim, and when the insurance company appealed, the case went before Lord Mansfield and two other judges.

The historical Mansfield ruled that the insurers were not liable to pay for slaves lost from the Zong, but while Belle portrays this as a sort of death knell for the slave trade in England (to swelling music and Dido breathless in the courtroom), Mansfield was not concluding that the Africans were people and not cargo – simply that the insurers did not have to pay for what he deemed intentional errors on the part of the Zong’s crew. Abolitionists wanted a great deal more – for the Zong’s crew to be charged with murder. This never happened. Mansfield was acutely aware of the commercial devastation that could come from the abolition of the slave trade, but at the same time, he was vehemently opposed to it on moral grounds. He used the law to mitigate it when he could, but it must be noted that, as a man who defined himself first and foremost as a jurist, he did this only within the bounds of English legal precedent. As he stated in another ruling, “The state of slavery…is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconvenience, therefore, may follow this decision I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England.”5

The historical Dido occupied what was has been called “the uneasy social position of one who was neither servant nor gentry,”6 and despite the fiery rhetoric Belle’s screenwriters put in Davinier’s mouth, it is Dido’s personal uncertainty and discomfort that the film truly excels in portraying. Mbatha-Raw imbues Dido with a sort of intelligent, quiet observation – she watches, listens, and tries to make sense of her place in the world, coming to the conclusion, “I don’t know that I find myself anywhere.” The film allows Dido, with Davinier, to find herself through a straightforward happy ending: the good fight against slavery won, a life of privilege, and a husband who values her as an equal. Things were undoubtedly far less simple for the historical Dido.

1. Gilbey, Ryan. “Race and Sensibility: Belle by Amma Asante.” The New Statesman. 12 June 2014. Available from: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/06/race-and-sensibility-belle-amma-asante

2. Diu, Nisha Lilia. “Dido Belle: Britain’s First Black Aristocrat.” The Telegraph. 6 June 2014. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10863078/Dido-Belle-Britains-first-black-aristocrat.html

3. King, Reyahn. “Dido Elizabeth Belle.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2007.

4. Adams, Gene. “Dido Elizabeth Belle: A Black Girl at Kenwood.” Camden History Review. v. 12, 1984. pp. 10-14.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

About the contributor: BETHANY LATHAM is a professor, librarian, and Managing Editor of HNR. She publishes in various scholarly and popular journals, as well as writing for EBSCO’s NoveList database. She serves as Internet Editor and a regular reviewer for Reference Reviews.


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 69, August 2014


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