J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Thomas Hutchinson Meets Dido Belle

The movie Belle is now in theaters, I’m sharing former Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson’s impression of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the young woman of (some) African descent who inspired that drama.

This is from Hutchinson’s diary entry for 19 Aug 1779, when he dined with Lord Chief Justice Mansfield and his family in England. Dido Belle had grown up in that family, receiving a genteel though limited education. It’s notable that she didn’t dine with the family on this occasion and had responsibility for some of the farming operation.

As usual, Hutchinson grasped many of the implications of the situations yet carefully deferred to his aristocratic host’s sensibilities in what issues he raised.
A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies, and after coffee, walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other. She had a very high cap, and her wool was much frizzled in her neck, but not enough to answer the large curls now in fashion. She is neither handsome nor genteel—pert enough. I knew her history before, but my Lord mentioned it again. Sir Jno. Lindsay having taken her mother prisoner in a Spanish vessel, brought her to England, where she was delivered of this girl, of which she was then with child, and which was taken care of by Lord M., and has been educated by his family. He calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for shewing a fondness for her—I dare say not criminal.

A few years ago [in 1771-1772] there was a cause before his Lordship bro’t by a Black [James Somerset] for recovery of his liberty. A Jamaica planter being asked what judgment his Ldship would give? “No doubt,” he answered, “he will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family.” She is a sort of Superintendent over the dairy, poultry yard, &c., which we visited, and she was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that, and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said.

I took occasion to mention that all the Americans who had brought Blacks had, as far as I knew, relinquished their property in them, and rather agreed to give them wages, or suffered them to go free. His Ldship remarked that there had been no determination that they were free, the judgment (meaning the case of Somerset) went no further than to determine the Master had no right to compel the slave to go into a foreign country, &c. I wished to have entered into a free colloquium, and to have discovered, if I am capable of it, the nice distinctions he mast have had in his mind, and which would not make it equally reasonable to restrain the Master from exercising any power whatever, as the power of sending the servant abroad; but I imagined such an altercation would rather be disliked, and forbore.
As Hutchinson tells Dido Belle’s story, Capt. Lindsay wasn’t necessarily her father—but most people had no trouble saying he was.

The Somerset legal case that Hutchinson referred to has a Massachusetts connection: Somerset’s owner, the Customs official Charles Steuart, had been posted in Boston in 1769 just before returning to Britain with a slave he’d purchased years before in Virginia. Hutchinson had probably met Steuart and might even have seen Somerset at work. But because he was just another enslaved servant, he probably didn’t prompt the attention that Hutchinson gave to Dido Belle.


Bill Harshaw said...

"all the Americans who had brought Blacks [to England] had, as far as I knew, relinquished their property in them..."

Is my bracketed interpolation the correct way to understand Hutchinson?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I believe so. Hutchinson saw himself as a leader of the expatriate Loyalist community in England, especially at that point in the war before the New York contingent arrived. So he was probably speaking to Lord Mansfield about them.