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You are in: London > TV > Television > Inside Out > Inside Out: Abolition of the British Slave Trade special

Dido Elizabeth Bell Lindsay

Girl in the picture: Dido (left)

Inside Out: Abolition of the British Slave Trade special

This week Inside Out takes a look at the Slave Trade to commemorate the 200th anniversary of its abolition in March 2007

The Girl in the Picture

By the end of the eighteenth century London’s black population was said to number between 5,000 and 10,000.

Many of them were slaves brought here by their masters, however some were escapees and some had made their way to the capital following the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 and the American War in 1781.

Images from this period, most famously Hogarth’s work, show black people living in the squalor of London’s underclass. But there is one notable exception – a remarkable portrait of an aristocratic black girl, pictured in front of Kenwood House.

Dido Elizabeth Belle was the daughter of Captain John Lindsay of the Royal Navy. She was born to a black slave mother who was suspected to have been captured from a Spanish ship whilst Lindsay served in the Caribbean.

Dido lived at Kenwood with her Great uncle William Murray – Earl Mansfield- until she was at least thirty.

Murray and his wife were childless and seemed happy to raise Dido and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Lindsay, whose mother had died while she was still an infant. The relationship was so close that a portrait was painted depicting Dido and Elizabeth as if they were close family.

Taking this portrait as a starting point Inside Out discovers the hitherto untold story of London’s first black ‘aristocrat’ and the influence she had over her great uncle in the pivotal 1772 Somerset slavery case he ruled upon.

Read how genealogist Sarah Minney spent two years uncovering Dido’s hitherto unknown life after she left Kenwood.

The search to find what happened to Dido Elizabeth Belle and if she left any descendants.

Sarah Minney

Sarah Minney

So far no documentary evidence has been found for Dido’s birth date but it has been estimated to have taken place around June 1763.  If this is correct then her conception would have taken place in around September 1762 when we know her father was in Havana, following the taking of the Morro Castle from the Spanish.

Dido’s father was a Royal Naval Captain, John Lindsay. As Dido was illegitimate, she did not commonly use the surname Lindsay.  She was therefore called Dido Elizabeth Belle

What is known is that Dido arrived at the home of her great uncle, the first Lord Mansfield as a child, left in his care by his nephew John Lindsay. 

Dido spent her childhood at Kenwood House in Hampstead in a rather strange position.  She was technically a slave as her mother had been and would not be granted her freedom until 1793 on the death of her great uncle. 

However, whilst being a member of the Mansfield family, she was not treated as such but nor was she treated as a servant.  She was given money and chores around the estate at Kenwood but never given chores that were too onerous. She was taught to read and write and enjoyed a close relationship with her cousin, Elizabeth. 

This relationship is clear to see in the painting of the two girls accredited to the artist Zoffany.

After Kenwood:

Although much is documented about Dido’s life at Kenwood, nothing was known after she left following the death of Lord Mansfield in early 1793.  However it is known that she was a woman of substance having been left money by both her father, who had died in 1788 and Lord Mansfield himself. 

A note in an annuity document of 1794 refers to her as Dido Elizabeth Davinier and it was this that gave the clue as to what had happened to her.

An initial search of the Internet, provided details of records held at the British Library Oriental and East India Library in St. Pancras.  These all relate to Charles Davinier, an officer in the Indian Army.  The documents state that Charles Davinier was born in 1795 and that he was baptised at St. George, Hanover Square.

A search of the baptism register of this church revealed Charles’ baptism and that of his twin brother, John.  They were the sons of John Davinier and his wife Elizabeth.  This did not prove that Elizabeth was Dido but a check of the marriage registers for the same church provided a marriage; John Davinier to Dido Elizabeth Belle.

A further search of the baptism registers revealed another son, William Thomas born in 1800.

By using the General Registrar’s birth, marriage and death indexes, which commenced on 1st July 1837, Charles Davinier’s life could be traced.  The returns, taken every ten years since 1801, were used.  However, only those returns from 1841 onwards survive.  

The General Registrar's index also revealed a marriage of a Lavinia Amelia Davinier in 1843 and this marriage provided the information that Lavinia had been born in around 1809. 

A further search of the St. George Hanover Square parish registers eventually uncovered her baptism along with that of her brother Edward Henry who had been born in 1812. 

The interesting thing that these baptisms showed was that their father was John Davinier but their mother’s name was Jane.  However, it was clear that these could not be the children of Dido’s son John as he would only have been around 14 when Amelia was born.  In addition, it was unlikely that there had been an error in that Dido’s name had been entered incorrectly as Jane as Dido would have been told old to be having children by then. 

So it was back to the marriage registers to try and find a marriage for a John Davinier.  A suitable marriage was found but it did not take place until 1819 and was at St. Martin’s in the Fields.  John Davinier, a widower had married Jane Holland. It was clearly correct as St. Martin’s was also given as John Davinier’s place of residence when he married Dido.

Whilst the marriage was clearly some time after they had had two children, it was not uncommon at this time period for people to marry some years after having children.

So, if this was Dido’s husband John, then Dido must have died by 1819 in order for John to remarry. Of course, divorce was not really an option at that time and this second marriage quoted John as being a widower.

It was then back to the parish registers of St. George Hanover Square and bearing in mind that she had had a child in 1800, a search was made of the burial registers.  An entry was found in July of 1804 for her, she was around 40 years old.  Sadly, burials registers very rarely record cause of death and the civil registration system that would record it did not start until around 30 years later.

By the use of census returns, parish registers the civil registration system and wills it has been possible to trace Dido’s descendants right down to 1975.  However, this is where it ends as her great-great grandson, Harold Davinier died in South Africa without having had children.

The Legacy of Slavery

The Slave Trade was abolished 200 years ago, but its legacy may still be with us.

Black mental health expert Professor Kwame McKenzie examines the concept of post traumatic slave syndrome. He explores the belief that the sheer breadth and scope of slavery’s assault on black people and their psyche created an extreme, long lasting trauma, trauma that has been passed from one generation of Black Britons of Afro-Caribbean descent to the next.

Could this idea of ‘inherited trauma’ help explain why young black pupils over the age of ten don’t perform at school as well as their counterparts from other ethnic groups?

Dr Lez Henry, a sociologist and youth worker, who has been mentoring young people for the past twenty years believes that post traumatic slave syndrome plays a large part in this underachievement in education - as the history that many black kids learn about themselves in school revolves around negative images of slavery – leading to feelings of alienation at school and in society.

Dr  Henry: “I know that I’m an African but it’s taken me taken a bit of time to do some research into what peoples like me have contributed to civilization for millennia. But if you haven’t and the only introduction you get to being an African is being a slave and that you were freed and that you are still catching up, of course you would want to disassociate yourself from that history and this is what happens in schools.”

For some mental health experts like Claire Felix from Rethink these feelings of alienation are deepened by not being aware of your cultural heritage or identity, this can extend to something as simple as a name.

During slavery Africans had their traditional names stripped away from them and forced to adopt European ones instead – “If my name is Claire where do I come from, what does that tell me? It tells me nothing about my past, it tells me nothing about my family or heritage…Taking away their name was one way of dehumanising them.

"So by removing someone’s name we’re saying that you are nobody, again it’s way of control, taking control… A name is important it tells you who you are, it’s a way of maintaining tradition.”

Supporters of Post Traumatic slavery syndrome also believe that slavery’s legacy has got inside the black community’s heads. They believe that it helps account for the high levels of serious mental health problems found within the African Caribbean community – and why some studies show that incidences of schizophrenia in Afro-Caribbean people are between two and eight times higher than in the white population

Could Post Traumatic slavery syndrome even go some way to explaining the ‘Baby Father’ syndrome where many black fathers absent themselves from their role in bringing up their children?

For some this is seen as simply modern day men running away from their responsibilities but supporters of Post Traumatic slavery syndrome believe that it could be something to do with what happened during slavery.

They believe the experience of today’s single families can be partly explained by the brutally harsh lives lived on the plantations – where one way slave masters tried to keep control was by splitting up families, and stopping slaves from forming normal relationships.

London Built on Slavery

Architectural historian Lucinda Lambton examines the legacy of slavery in London. She visits the British Museum, founded by Hans Sloane who travelled widely in the Caribbean and who wrote first hand accounts of slavery, returning to the UK with a vast collection that formed the basis of the British Museum.

She also visits slave owners’ Duke of Chandos’s church St Lawrence of Stanmore and Sir John Boyd’s Danson House in Bexley.

Don't miss the Inside Out Abolition of the British Slave Trade special on BBC One at 7.30pm on Friday March 2, 2007

last updated: 22/01/2008 at 15:16
created: 28/02/2007

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