Thursday, June 9, 2011
Women at Sea: Girl with the Turban
On the right is Lady Elizabeth Murray. Born into privilege in 1761 as the daughter of the Earl of Mansfield, she was orphaned in her youth and went to live with her uncle James, who inherited his brother’s estate. Elizabeth was an heiress in her own right but, because her aunt and uncle were childless, faced the prospect of a lonely, country youth. All that changed with the appearance of the woman on the left, Dido Belle Lindsey.
Around the same time in the West Indies, the son of the Earl of Mansfield’s sister was making a name for himself in the Royal Navy. John Lindsay was in command of HMS Trent, a frigate of 28 guns. While on the Jamaica station Lindsay became known as one of those typical spit and polish Royal Navy Captains that were notorious in the Caribbean. Some time in 1761 he did something else not entirely unheard-of for a British man in foreign waters: he fathered an illegitimate child by a local woman.
Dido was the daughter of the Captain and a slave or free black woman named Maria Belle. Various fantastical stories – including that she was an abused slave aboard a Havana gunship rescued by Lindsay – surround Maria. The fact of the matter, though, is that she was probably Jamaican and the Captain’s companion while he was in local waters. Though this is speculation, both fact and very well researched historical fiction (Forester and O’Brian mention these kinds of arrangements, for instance) point to this possibility.
It is probable that Maria either died in childbirth or shortly thereafter because in 1762, after Lindsay had made a name for himself at the capture of Havana, he sent little Dido home to live with his Uncle James. It appears that, in fact, Dido may have been the first little girl taken in by the childless – and at the time future – Earl and Countess of Mansfield.
While Lindsay prospered at sea (and fathered at least two other illegitimate children), Dido was raised at Kenwood House in Hampstead, England. Historians note that she had a fine, four-poster bed with chintz hangings, was given asses milk when she was ill, and learned not only to read and write but to speak French, Italian and possibly Latin. It is even reasonable to say that Dido was tutored alongside her cousin Elizabeth.
While the same historians relate that her Uncle Mansfield, a judge, would later make decisions on slavery cases based on his love of Dido, some distinct differences were at play back at home. Dido did not dine with the family when guests came to call, but only joined the ladies in the parlor after the meal was over. She did not formally come out into society as Elizabeth did, either, being considered her cousin’s “companion” by the time they were old enough to accept suitors.
On the other hand, Dido was afforded broad and in some cases unusual duties. She travelled extensively with the family and with Elizabeth in particular. She was given the oversight of both the poultry house and the dairy at Kenwood, in which case she supervised the laborers, bought and sold animals and their produce, stocked the household larder and kept the books. This would have been a typical assignment for a young woman learning the art of keeping an estate. Atypical in the extreme was one of Dido’s later duties: secretary to the Earl. She dealt with messengers, read correspondence and wrote out dictated letters and other papers. This kind of work was generally reserved for a male steward or secretary. For a woman to take up such a task in the late 18th century was virtually unheard of.
Dido was left a yearly allowance not only by the Earl of Mansfield but also by her father, who died without legitimate offspring. Some writers point to her race when comparing Dido’s annuity of 30 pounds from the Earl to the one he settled on her cousin of approximately 100 pounds. What is often overlooked in these discussions is the stigma of illegitimacy, which would have also contributed to Dido’s inability to be introduced into society. This, perhaps even more than mixed race, certainly slammed doors in the face of even the most cheerful, polished and beautiful girls of the era.
Dido married after her Uncle’s death in 1793. She and John Davinier had three sons baptized in the church of St. George on Hanover Square. Dido was buried there, in St. George’s Field, after her death in 1804.
The lovely portrait of the two happy friends who clearly charmed the anonymous gentleman on the other side of the canvas is currently owned by the present Earl of Mansfield. It hangs in Scone Palace in Perth, Scotland. One hopes that more people will learn the intimate and fascinating story of both ladies, and particularly the pretty girl with the turban.
Header: Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle Lindsay by an unknown artist c 1779