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Dido Belle, equal but separate

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The relationship between Maria Belle, a black woman, and John Lindsay, a white British Navy captain, would, we like to believe, go unnoticed today. But Maria and John came to know one another in the 1700’s. It is not known whether Maria was a slave or a free woman, but it is a fact that they had a child. A girl, named Dido Elizabeth Belle.

When the British captured Havana (Cuba) from the Spanish in 1762, a battle in which the HMS (Her Majesty’s Ship) Trent, Lindsay’s ship, fought, Maria was allegedly taken from one of the Spaniard’s ships before the end of the war and returned with Lindsay to England, where Dido would be born.

Captain Lindsay was the nephew of England’s most powerful judge, and the first Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice, William Murray. The judge and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Finch, raised Dido, together with her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother, Frederica, died six years after her birth—Elizabeth’s father remarried.

In a painting from the 18th century, Dido and Elizabeth Murray are shown as equals. Portraits from this era usually depict black people as being of a lower class. In this painting though, Elizabeth is showing affection toward Dido, and Dido is not, as usually is portrayed by those perceived as lower-class, kneeling at the side of Elizabeth, or in the background with a blank or caricatured expression

.A member of the family, and portrayed as an equal, did not keep Maria and Captain Lindsay’s daughter from suffering the anguish of racism. While living at Kenwood House in London, England, Dido received much less of an allowance than her cousin, and was relegated to the guest room while visitors dined at the home.

But after dinner, wrote American guest, and former Governor of the state of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson. “A black came in…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.”

Belle stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido, Matthew Goode (Captain Lindsay), Tom Wilkinson, Lamin Tamba, and Sarah Gadon (Elizabeth).

Screenplay by Misan Sagay, and directed by Amma Asante

Belle is playing in selected cities and will open in more cities through spring and summer.

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