Have you seen the movie Belle (2013)?
Set in Georgian England and based on a true story, the movie follows the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the daughter of a British naval officer and an African woman. Historically, very little is known about her mother or the circumstances of Belle’s birth, but her father gave her his family name and she inherited a small fortune through his will after his death.
Belle was taken to England and placed in her great-uncle’s household where she was treated as an adopted niece. Since her great-uncle was the Lord Chief Justice of England, she received a good education. However, British society could see little except her darker skin, and she faced racism and social restrictions on a daily basis at gatherings.
Lord Mansfield, her great-uncle, presided as ruling judge in the Zong Case—which decided in court of law if enslaved men, women, and children were insurable property or cargo for slave trading ships. (Historical Spoiler: his decision on this case was one of the first steps and precedents toward the abolition of the British Slave Trade several decades later.)
For years, Dido Elizabeth Belle was “lost” in history, but her uncle had paid for the creation of an art masterpiece which survived and preserved her story for future researchers.
Painted as an equal with her sister-cousin, Elizabeth Murray, Belle’s story and legacy was preserved in this family portrait which broke art conventions of its day at the insistence of the Lord Chief Justice who wanted the his nieces painted side by side, as the friends, equals, and companions…the way he saw and raised them.
This account—along with a lovely love story—appeared on the movie screen in 2013. Here’s the trailer:
Why am I writing this? Because one dialog sentence of a particular scene has been in my mind for the past week as our nation and communities seek to ensure safety and equality under law for all. I couldn’t find the scene online, but here is a transcript of the dialog:
John Davinier: M’lord! If you find for the traders, you will be formalizing in law the concept of insuring human cargo.
Lord Mansfield: That’s correct. [gives orders to the carriage driver]
John Davinier: Then know that when you are gone, your legacy will be to have left Miss Lindsay in a world where she may be worth more dead than alive.
Lord Mansfield: Miss Lindsay is not a slave.
John Davinier: By the very grace of God!
Lord Mansfield: [thumping on carriage’s roof to signal driver to stop] This is not about Miss Lindsay.
John Davinier: Of course it is. It’s about all of us. It’s about everything… everything that’s important.
It’s that ending quote of this section. Questions about justice, safety, equality, respect affect us all. Character—including how we treat others—defines us. Starting with the individual. The challenging situations that our communities face right now have bedrock issues that are important to us all.
I’ll let you in on a little secret…three people in Belle’s story listened. Belle herself, John Davinier, and Lord Mansfield. They all came from different places and had different experiences, even of the same situations. In the end, they changed history…because they learned to listen, they took time to think, and they acted upon their beliefs.
Not to get preachy, but I think there might be something in that for all of us this week.
If you’re interested in an easy-to-read nonfiction history book about Dido Elizabeth Belle, the movie’s companion book is a good place to start. Or find the movie, make some popcorn, and be prepared to be challenged by a story inspired by the truth about a brave young woman.