The story of Dido Belle

The London Times of Saturday 7 July has a two-page spread inspired by the story of Dido Belle the mixed-race niece of the eminent judge, Lord Mansfield, portrayed here next to her cousin, Elizabeth. The piece is by Paula Byrne, whose book, Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle, forms dido and eliza 3the basis of the rather pedestrian and frequently inaccurate film based on her life. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read Byrne’s book, but it is clear that she has told an important and hitherto little-known story and is to be congratulated for bringing it to life.

There are a couple of small inaccuracies in the Times piece. Wilberforce’s friend, Lady Middleton, who is said to have been one of those who inspired him to take up the cause of abolition, is wrongly described as Lady Margaret Middleton. That would make her the daughter of a duke, marquess or earl, rather than the wife of a knight (her husband was the MP, Sir Charles Middleton), and would make her rather grander socially than she actually was. These distinctions are important for understanding late-eighteenth-century society. Without grasping them we cannot, for example, understand the nuances of Jane Austen’s novels.

The second concerns Wilberforce directly. As I report in my book (pp. 199-201) on 2 April 1792 he spoke in Parliament about the plight on a slave ship of

a young girl of fifteen, of extreme modesty, who finding herself in a situation incident to her sex, was extremely anxious to conceal it.

But the ship’s captain, courageously named by Wilberforce as John Kimber, beat her, tied her up by the legs, then beat her again. The tortures continued until she died. This shocking narrative inspired Isaac Cruikshank to produce a grotesque and semi-pornographic caricature, ‘The Abolition of the Slave Trade’. For copyright reasons, I can’t reproduce it here, but it can easily be found through a google search.

Byrne describes this unnamed young woman as pregnant, and writes that it was her courageous refusal to dance that cost her her life. Yet a careful look at Wilberforce’s exact words suggests that she was menstruating and embarrassed about her condition. He would not have balked at the word’ pregnant’ but would have felt very constrained in talking about menstruation to an all-male House of Commons. The point of the story is, of course, its savage cruelty and its poignancy lies in the fact that this young girl remains nameless, so perhaps the exact nature of her condition doesn’t matter. On the other hand, we owe it to her to be as accurate as possible. Deprived of dignity on that terrible ship, she deserves an account of her death that is as truthful as possible.

There is an interesting take on the film here. The article notes a couple of distortions in the film and pays proper tribute to the veteran abolitionist, Granville Sharp, a man Wilberforce revered greatly.

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