Britain and the Slave Trade

Dido Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray

A new film, Belle, is released on 13 June. It was inspired by the very lovely and well-known portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle. I'm not sure that I have much hope it will be a good film, and I get the impression that it takes liberties with the facts. However, it will certainly look stunning and will no doubt benefit from the presence of Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield.

Dido Belle played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Dido was the daughter of a young Royal Navy officer, John Lindsay, and a slave. Lindsay asked his extended family to look after her and she grew up in Kenwood House, the home of Lord Mansfield. What makes it interesting was that Lord Mansfield, as Lord Chief Justice, declared in Somersett v. Stewart in 1772 that slavery had no legal basis in English law. It is more than likely that he was influenced by his niece Dido. Sadly, this did not lead to the immediate abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire, something which (with a few exceptions) was only achieved in 1833. However, it was certainly a turning-point in Britain's attitude to slavery. Indeed, the Royal Navy formed a West African Squadron to suppress the slave trade in 1808.

Ironically, Britain, which had benefited so much from the obscene inhumanity of the slave trade, became the moving force in its abolition throughout the world. Here is a picture, not as far as I know ever published before, of freed slaves (mostly young children) and Jack Tars on the deck of HMS Flying Fish in 1875. My great-grandfather was the navigating Lieutenant onboard when she intercepted a slave-trading vessel off the coast of Zanzibar (which was to remain an island devoted to the slave trade until the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896).

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