29 June 2014

Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice

It was the Spring of 2009 that I caught my first glimpse of Kenwood House in Hampstead.  Meandering the streets from the tube stop I was beginning to regret my choice of footwear.  Directed into the park by local strollers and then onto a path I began to get the sinking feeling that I was going round in circles and would end up lost.  The blisters and whimpering were about to start when, just past the largest rhododendron bushes I have ever seen, the stunning white mansion appeared.  Any whimpering stopped there.

Having walked from room to room in Kenwood House and taken in the portraiture definitely created an extra layer of enjoyment in the reading of this book.  My Grade Nine African Studies lessons also came flooding back such as the graphic images of how slave traders would pack hundreds of people, stolen from their villages, into the hull of a ship allowing next to no room for movement.  Proper care and hygiene, forget it.  The gross negligence is bad enough but the barbaric treatment of women such as continuous rape and the ripping of babies out of mothers' arms to be thrown overboard made me livid.  There were some women though who, I can only imagine through guile, offered themselves as mistresses to the upper hierarchy of the ship's crew.  These women were provided with clothing, food, and even the opportunity to breathe the sea air instead of the noxious fumes of slop buckets and disease below deck.  Some of these women were even brought into the men's homes as their 'black wife'.

The circumstances of Dido Elizabeth Belle's birth in 1761 are unknown but whatever the case, her father Captain John Lindsay brought her to England from the West Indies to live in the lap of luxury.  His uncle, Lord Mansfield, and his wife were childless; another niece also came to stay but it's not known which girl arrived first.  The two girls grew up together, playing in the vast rooms at Kenwood House and taking regular carriage rides into Bloomsbury where the Mansfields also had a townhouse.

Shown above is the gorgeous portrait that has so many people wondering about Dido Belle's role in Lord Mansfield's extended family.  Paula Byrne does an excellent job of taking what little information there is and padding it out to create an informative and compelling read about slavery, abolitionists, a riot in Bloomsbury, the Georgian legal system in London and more.  The reader is also introduced to an interesting man, Granville Sharp, one of Britain's leading abolitionists who signed his name G#.  Pretty clever, I thought, considering his musical abilities.  As for the sugar trade it was the women of England who made their stance known from their kitchens and parlours...

'William Allen urged women, sipping their tea at home, to consider their responsibilities as consumers.  And it wasn't just the upper classes: a white working-class abolitionist called Lydia Hardy wrote to Olaudah Equiano to tell him that in her village of Chesham more people drank tea without sugar than with it.  So it was that women took the lead in the campaign to refuse to buy sugar or run, another product of the plantations.
  Lady Margaret Middleton hosted dinner parties at which she spoke and spread awareness of the horrors of the slave trade.  The novelist, playwright and evangelical writer Hannah More joined forces with her, and wrote anti-slavery pamphlets and poems.  The official seal of the abolitionists was Wedgwood's medallion bearing the figure of a manacled, kneeling slave and the slogan 'Am I not a man and brother?'.  Women abolitionists wore the medallion on chains around their necks, as bracelets or as hair ornaments.'

Last, but not least, the appendix features an interesting examination about a link between Dido and Jane Austen.  I'll leave it to any future readers to discover the details for themselves but think about this....Jane's novel Mansfield Park just so happens to contain slavery as a shadow story.  Very interesting...

The movie of the same name was playing here recently and naturally, since I have to jump all over anything related to English history featuring London porn, my husband and I went to see it.  We both really enjoyed it, Dido's story is a fascinating one, and it made me eager to learn more.


  1. I've heard of the film and looking forward to seeing it, but didn't know there was a book. The story is fascinating and I'd love to read it. Thanks.

  2. I wanted to see the movie anyway, but that link...very, very intriguing. Do I sense a skeleton in the closet, even somewhat removed? I just watched the 1995-ish movie of Mansfield Park and that 'shadow' story was much more than a shadow. Interesting when the common wisdom is that Jane Austen avoided talking about current events, politics, etc. in her books/

    1. Apparently the Austen family was quite vocal, amongst themselves anyway, about their thoughts on slavery. If the theory holds true then I can well imagine Jane casting a bit of support for abolition in the title of her book.