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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Enlightenment, Romanticism and Sentiment: William Wilberforce, religious conversion and the language of abolition

This is the substance of a paper I gave at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, in January 2010. The following works are referred to in the paper:

D. W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989)

Boyd Hilton, The Age of Atonement: The Influence of Evangelicalism on Social and Economic Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991)

Brycchan Carey, British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment and Slavery, 1760-1807 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

William Cobbett, The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803, vol. 28 (1789-91)

D. Bruce Hindmarsh, John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2001)

D. Bruce Hindmarsh, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London: HarperPress, 2009)

John Locke, Essay on Human Understanding (1690)

David Newsome, The Parting of Friends: A Study of the Wilberforces and Henry Manning (London: John Murray, 1966)

Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (Ware, Herts.: Wordsworth Classics, 2002)

John Pollock, Wilberforce (London: Constable, 1977)

Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

Robert Isaac and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, 5 vols (1838)

William Wilberforce, A Practical View of the Religious System of Professed Christians…Contrasted with Real Christianity (1797)

William Wilberforce, Letter to the Freeholders of Yorkshire on the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1807)

William Wilberforce, An Appeal to the Religion, Justice, and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies (1823)

John Wolffe, Religion, Exploration and Slavery: From Enlightenment to Romanticism (Milton Keynes: Open University, 2004)

The starting-point for this paper is John Pollock’s description of William Wilberforce’s famous conversion experience of 1785, which he describes (p. 37) in essentialist and vertical terms as part of a classic Christian experience of ‘darkness preceding dawn’ that was shared by Augustine, Luther, Cromwell, Pascal, and Bunyan.  One of the reviewers took Pollock to task for this, arguing that Wilberforce’s conversion should be seen horizontally as a classic product of the late eighteenth-century age of sentiment, the age that produced Sterne’s Sentimental Journey (1768) and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and it is Wilberforce’s alleged relationship with late eighteenth-century sentimentalism that I want to explore here.

In order to do this, it is necessary to revisit David Bebbington’s  well known thesis that the eighteenth-century Evangelical revival ‘represents a sharp discontinuity in the English-speaking world, the transition from the Baroque era to the Enlightenment’ (p. 74) and that the whole movement ‘was permeated by Enlightenment influences’ (p. 57).  This assertion has been taken up by many other historians of Evangelicalism, for example in John Wolffe’s at first sight startlingly counter-intuitive assertion (p. 15)  that John Newton’s hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ ‘was in its way quite as much a product of the Enlightenment as Hume’s ‘Of the immortality of the soul’.  Both  Bebbington and Wolffe associate Evangelicalism  with John Locke’s empiricist philosophy.  As Wolffe notes,

‘Evangelicals were men and women of the Enlightenment to the extent that they perceived themselves as advocates of a coherent alternative religious system founded on tested experience and an integrated view of the world’ (p.18).

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