Dido Belle: England’s Eighteenth-Century African Enigma

Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle

The Story of England’s First Black Aristocrat: Dido Elizabeth Belle

Would you believe it if I told you that there existed a black aristocrat in eighteenth-century England? No, of course you wouldn’t because this seeming conundrum was certainly not allowed to happen. Even more perplexing was that she, Dido Elizabeth Belle, was the daughter of Sir John Lindsay – son of Sir Alexander Lindsay, 3rd Baronet – and great-niece of William Murray, the first Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice for 32 years. Her blood was certainly noble, at least in the view of an English aristocrat assessing her father’s genealogy. However, look at her mother’s genealogy and she was no more than the daughter of a slave. She was also the illegitimate daughter of a slave as her parents were never married.

Yet, what set her apart from other illegitimate children was that her father accepted her as his daughter and made sure that she grew up under the guardianship of Earl and Lady Mansfield in Kenwood House. Although she grew up with the Earl’s other niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, it is not certain in what capacity she did so. Was she the little Lady’s playmate, attendant, or cousin? Since there is no definite account, most people look at the painting featured above and assert that she was a companion equal to Lady Elizabeth. Others look at it more critically saying that she is portrayed as a Lady’s companion. Either way, Amma Asante’s 2013 movie, Belle, certainly illuminates her relationship with the Earl, with John Davinier (who would eventually marry Belle), and how that all culminated in the Earl’s monumental ruling against slavery.

The Movie: Belle starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Belle meets the young Frenchmen, John Davinier, when he is under the Earl’s apprenticeship for law. Through him, she hears about the Zong massacre where insurance had been taken out on the lives of slaves as cargo. Following mistakes in navigation, there was a shortage of potable water aboard. So as to save the crew and to retain their investment on the slaves, the crew threw the slaves aboard to drown them. Doing so would enable them to get paid out for insurance because if the slaves had died of thirst then they could not be sold and no insurance could be paid out. Belle then proceeds to pass correspondence to Davinier which brings his apprenticeship to an end.

I will skip the romance and depiction of high society that frequents the movie. However, it allows the audience to see exactly how people of colour were treated in England in that era.

The End of the Slave Trade in Sight?

Eventually though, Belle rejects a most amiable proposal. One of the reasons for this was the affection that she had begun to hold for John Davinier. Either way, the story progressed as the Earl became painfully aware that his attempts to give Belle a suitable life, one in which she fitted into English society, had dismally failed. His own reluctance to rule against the crew on the Zong exacerbated this. Furthermore, he could not even rule against them without drawing criticism from every part of English society – royalty, aristocracy, and commoners – as they were too aware of his relationship with Belle. If he ruled against them, it would seem like an unfair judgement. But, realising that his wish to see Belle’s happiness in English society would never be achieved as long as people who shared her skin colour were brutally murdered and slave trade continued, he ruled against the crew of the Zong in a monumental way. As such, he became remembered for respecting the lives of slaves, and thereby as a man who was instrumental in the abolition of slavery.

It cannot be known for certain what drove him to this judgement, but, the movie certainly makes the case that Belle and Davinier were instrumental. And so, the simple story of Dido Belle becomes more fascinating when we realise that not only did she defy social conventions but she possibly played a pivotal role in bringing the English slave trade to an end.

My Take on Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Book Lover - The Books I Bought from the Strand Book Store showing Purple Hibiscus

Firstly, what is Purple Hibiscus?

Purple Hibiscus is the award-winning novel written by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and released in 2003. It tells the story of a girl, Kambili Achike, born as the daughter of the wealthy Igbo man, Eugene Achike – a religious man whose convictions often cross the border from decency and depart into the complex realm of zealotry and domestic abuse.

Purple Hibiscus cover
Cover of Purple Hibiscus

The family of Kambili, including her brother and mother, live a life based on a strict schedule determined by the dictatorial Eugene. Ironically, Eugene is more liberal in his political views – supporting democracy – while showing the greatest of generosity to those who are not his family. He is also a man who idealises the practices of European people. But, at home, he is a completely different man who demands much of his family while giving no real kindness in return. It gets more complex when Kambili’s strict lifestyle is disrupted by the discordant Aunt Ifeoma (Eugene’s sister). From there, the situation deteriorates and Kambili is torn between her father, her beliefs, her love and her desires.

What did I think of it?

I absolutely loved Purple Hibiscus! It is definitely one of the greatest books I have ever read. Adichie does an excellent job at conveying the myriad of political views, religious views, and emotions that encompass this book, leaving the reader unsure of whether they feel sorry for Eugene’s deterioration or whether they rejoice at it. In a way, this reflects Kambili’s own emotions – too scared, and enamoured of her father to resist him yet defiant enough that his retribution at her disobedience lands her in the hospital. Her admiration for her father’s values and behaviours slowly become a criticism of his dark actions – yet all the while preserving her love for him.

Adichie further contrasts Kambili’s defiance to her brother Jaja’s defiance which is both more strong and more offensive. She wonderfully symbolises this loss of innocence through the growth of purple hibiscus in their garden full of red hibiscus. Furthermore, the book is full of stark contrasts between rich and poor, Christian and heathen, man and woman, and subservience and insubordination. In doing so, she marvellously captures the essence of Igbo culture in a post-colonial Africa.

I would definitely give it five stars!

If you are looking for a thought-provoking, enticing, slow and yet somehow exhilarating read, this is possibly one of the best you will ever find!

Book Lover’s Paradise – New York City!

Beautiful Morning View of Manhattan - Book Lover's Paradise

Book Lover’s, this is for you! So, in my last post, I promised to follow up with exactly what inspired me to reinvent my persona as an author. Here it is:

New York City – The Book Lover’s Paradise!

In my last post, I mentioned my visit to the USA. Specifically, I mentioned my visit to the Strand Book Store and the New York Public Library. This was my experience! I first went to the Strand Book Store. Doesn’t this image just perfectly espouse what you would feel? Well, it is certainly what I felt when I walked into the Strand Book Store.

When a Book Lover enters a bookstore - Elsa
When I enter a bookstore

Except, I was not the confident book lover, declaring my intention to revel in the mysteries concealed in the winding bookshelves. Instead, I walked in meekly, dwarfed by the awesome and gargantuan scale of the Strand. The Strand Book Store proclaims to be home to over 18 miles of books. After visiting it, I can confidently say that they are right!

So how did it really change my perspective?

From book lover to aspiring novelist

Well, as any author will say, I have always aspired to be a published writer. So, after having published what I consider to be two sub-standard non-fiction works, I was complacent, even confident, that I had achieved my goals.

Book Lover - The Books I Bought from the Strand Book Store
The Books I Bought from the Strand Book Store
Book Lover - The Strand Bag and Books, 18 miles of books
Notice the meaningful tagline…18 miles of books

However, after visiting the Strand, and walking between the shelves stacked with the most illustrious and unknown of novelists, I knew that I had to join their ranks. I could not stay on as the little-known writer of historical non-fiction. To be a true author, I affirmed myself, I would have to learn to forge characters, conflict, and controversy in the most intricate of prose – mastering the art of storytelling and influencing readers all at the same time. Only after such a monumental piece, one that would be fit for the Strand, would I call myself an author. I wanted another person, one day in the future, to walk amongst those shelves and to consider my book as sacred and as entertaining as any other.

Apart from that

My visit to the other book lover’s haven

I bought the four books that you saw in the image! I will soon write my thoughts on one of them. But, I had spent over two hours in the bookstore after resolving to only spend an hour there. I also spent over $70 after resolving to spend only $20, but I suppose it couldn’t be helped, could it?

By then, it was dark when I made my way to the New York Public Library. This was just as exciting as the Strand, although I did not get to read. The art, the architecture, the furnishings and the atmosphere all create the perfect ambience in which to read the world’s best works of art. If you ever visit New York, you must go there!

So, where did it all leave me?

The whole experience in the USA (if you missed the previous blog post check it out here) was enlightening, to say the least. I met many new people, got many new ideas and inspirations, and I resolved to make the biggest decision of my career – to erase it and start all over again. I got valuable relationships, valuable memories, and most importantly, valuable reads out of the trip. The verdict: you can keep an eye out for my novel, which will be submitted to the Strand Book Store as soon as possible, and if you can – authors and readers – travel, because it will truly change your life! I certainly can’t wait to do it again!