Slavery tale with a twist of truth

By Vanessa Thorpe

Gug Mbatha-Raw (left) portrays Dido Belle, who lived in Georgian elegance, in last year's film Belle with Emily Watson.
Gug Mbatha-Raw (left) portrays Dido Belle, who lived in Georgian elegance, in last year's film Belle with Emily Watson.

She wore the finest silks, lived in one of London's most desirable homes and studied in a library still regarded as one of the greatest achievements of the 18th-century designer John Adam. Yet Dido Belle was the daughter of an unknown black slave woman so could not sit at the dinner table with her adopted family at Kenwood House, now in north London.

Belle, a film directed by Amma Asante and released in New Zealand this week, tells the story of the illegitimate young woman who found herself among the household of Lord Mansfield, one of the greatest men of the Georgian age. As lord chief justice in 1772, he ruled that a master could not take a slave out of Britain by force, a judgment seen as a key stage in the eventual abolition of the slave trade.

However a new biography of Mansfield, Belle's great-uncle and benefactor, has revealed that this complex figure was not the crusading liberal portrayed in the film. "He was a brilliant mind, but was chiefly interested in protecting the status quo," said author Norman Poser.

In Lord Mansfield, Justice in the Age of Reason, Poser, a New York academic, argues that the eminent politician and judge does not merit his reputation as a radical hero of the anti-slavery movement. Although he was fond of Belle and always treated her fairly, there is no evidence that she influenced his views. In fact, the judge's famous ruling in the case that later helped to dismantle slavery was the result of his slow acknowledgement that slaves had rights in law.

"The film is right to suggest Mansfield is closely associated with the cause, but he did not want to bring down the slave owners in America, or even to end slavery," Poser said.

"He did, however, eventually rule that the practice was so suspect that it would have to be set down in deliberate legislation if it was to continue, rather than simply being supported by common law and precedent."

Mansfield's ruling on slavery in the "Somerset case" of 1772 reads: "It is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law."

He reasoned that the captain of the ship on which the slave was being deported could fairly be considered to be holding a man against his will.

"He was very reluctant to annoy the slave owners and vested interests," said Poser. "He rather hoped things would just go on as they were saying, 'I would have all masters think they were free and all Negroes think they were not'."

Poser, 86, who has retired from teaching law, became intrigued by the story of Mansfield's home life when he saw the portrait of Belle and her cousin during a visit to Scone Palace, the Mansfield family's Scottish home, in 2006: "I was also drawn to his remarkably clear legal decisions. He did not just give a ruling; he gave guidance on principles of law, many of which are still cited in cases on both sides of the Atlantic."

Belle has already been compared to Steve McQueen's Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave. Poser said he welcomes the film and recognises that Misan Sagay's screenplay needed to flesh out the scant details of Belle's life story. Yet he maintains that Mansfield was a more complex and powerful figure than actor Tom Wilkinson has the chance to convey.

The second son of a "questionable" Scottish Jacobite family, William Murray, as he was born, made a great deal of money as a young barrister before going on to serve as solicitor general, attorney general, chancellor of the exchequer, speaker and finally lord chief justice.

At the centre of London society, he was friends with John Adam, poet Alexander Pope, actor David Garrick, painter Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Johnson's biographer, James Boswell, who said he was a man of "cold reserve and sharpness" who "chills the most generous blood".

In Asante's film, Belle finds crucial evidence for her uncle while he is presiding over a case involving the mass drowning of slaves in the Caribbean. The real Dido Belle came to Kenwood because her father, a sea captain, brought her to be a companion for her cousin Elizabeth, with whom she is pictured in the Scone portrait.

After Lady Mansfield's death, Belle stayed on to care for her uncle, reading newspapers to him as he became crippled with rheumatism. He died at 88 in 1793, leaving Dido a provision in his will as well as setting aside a substantial one-off payment in a codicil.

He wrote: "I think it right considering how she has been bred and how she has behaved to make a better provision for Dido."

After his death, she married and had three sons, dying in her early 40s in 1800.

Poser's book tells the story of a generous and clever man who read the mood of his times. "A distinction should be made between Mansfield's decisions as a judge who consistently furthered the interests of merchants and property owners, even at the expense of fundamental human rights, and his humane conduct of his personal life," he writes.

But he argues that Mansfield's wider influence lives on in every branch of the law, from contract law to the freedom of the press, where he ruled against prior censorship. "My daughter, who teaches law in Nebraska, told me Mansfield had been cited in the ruling of a recent paternity case there.

It is strange that his name is not better remembered in Britain and America."

- Observer

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