Dido Elizabeth Belle, Slavery and Jane Austen

“The real names of our people were destroyed during slavery. The last name of my forefathers was taken from them when they were brought to America and made slaves, and then the name of the slave master was given, which we refuse; we reject that name today and refuse it. I never acknowledge it whatsoever.”

-Malcolm X

 In 1791 a ship was carrying slaves from West Africa to Caribbean.  Jim Kimber was captain of this ship. The slaves were forced to work in sugarcane fields in Caribbean. The fields and slaves were owned by Europeans who made fortune by using slaves.

Before we go ahead with the story, something more about slave trade, the European slave traders used to kidnap Africans and then they were transported to various parts of world as slaves. Once they were kidnapped and branded as slave, they ceased to be humans; they were like trade inventory – a perishable commodity. They were dumped in ships and while transporting a periodic check was done of slaves- men, women and children. Those who were ill or unhealthy were labelled as damaged goods and where thrown in sea. The inventory was insured, so if slave died for reasons other than natural reasons then the owner could claim insurance amount. One way to keep inventory in good condition was to expose inventory to fresh air, this was done by forcing slaves to dance.

slave dancing on ship[1]

“God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners”

-William Wilberforce, Anti-slavery activist in 1787

Coming back to our story, one young girl refused to dance. Jim Kimber did not like it at all, he had girl hung upside down and started flogging her. Girl died due to ill treatment. In Britain some people decided to try Jim Kimber for murder, but Kimber was acquitted.


Ten years earlier in 1781, a ship called “Zong” was carrying slaves to Caribbean. During voyage the ship faced shortage of drinking water. The crew decided that if they were to survive, they should get rid of inventory. They worked out a strategy to get rid of inventory and in return earn cash. If they threw slaves in sea, they will get rid of inventory and by claiming insurance get cash. 133 slaves consisting of men, women and children were thrown in sea, when one slave managed to climb back, he was again thrown back (Sorry, our quality policy does not allow us to take back damaged goods)


After getting rid of slaves, the owners of Zong went to insurance company to claim insurance, but company refused to pay. The owners went to court. The case came before Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield. Earl of Mansfield had in another case-Somerset v Stewart (1772) – had held that slave James Somerset cannot be sold by owner Charles Stewart against his will (Stewart wanted to sell Somerset to a slave owner in Jamaica), so Somerset had to be set free.

“…no master ever was allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he had deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever; we cannot say the cause set forth by this return is allowed or approved of by the laws of this kingdom, therefore the black must be discharged.”

-Earl of Mansfield in Somerset v Stewart case

Chief Justice after hearings arguments concluded that the insurers were not liable for losses, because deaths were result of errors committed by the Zong’s crew. Crew was not tired for murders.

A British naval officer Sir John Lindsay had affair with an African slave called Marie Belle in West Indies. Marie Belle gave birth to a daughter called Dido Elizabeth Belle in 1761. John decided to take Dido to England and keep her under care of his uncle William Murray.


His uncle and aunt had adopted an orphaned niece called Elizabeth Murray, who was born in 1760. They were looking for a companion for their niece. Dido then 4 years old became Elizabeth Murray’s companion. William Murray treated Dido well, at par with his niece. Dido lived in their house for 30 years, she married a steward called John Davinier. They had three children. Dido died at the age of 43.

Her son Charles joined East India Company and was stationed in Madras- Vanakkam Saar!

It is said that Dido’s presence influenced William Murray’s judgements in cases related to slavery. William Murry was Chief Justice and Earl of Mansfield, we have talked about earlier.

A film was made on Dido in 2013.


British author Jane Austen had probably heard about this story from her brothers, who were naval officers. This could have been inspiration for her novel “Mansfield Park” which was published in 1814, a decade after Dido died. Heroine of novel Fanny Price is daughter of a poor naval officer, who at the age of 10 is sent to stay with her aunt Lady Bertram and cousins at Mansfield Park. Her husband Sir Thomas Bertram is wealthy man who owns sugarcane fields in Antigua, where slaves work in his sugarcane fields. Jane Austen does not take any moral stand on issue of slavery, her characters are not concerned about slavery, they are more interested in politics at Mansfield Park.


“All the evidence says that even the most routine aspects of holding slaves on a West Indian sugar plantation were cruel stuff. And everything we know about Jane Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery. Fanny Price reminds her cousin that after asking Sir Thomas about the slave trade, “there was such a dead silence” as to suggest that one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both. That is true.”

-Edward Said, professor of English at Columbia University





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