They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Portraits are too, at least in the case of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the subject of the feature film “Belle.”
The film tells the story of Dido, a historical figure who died in 1804. Dido was the biracial daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay and Maria Belle, a woman of African descent who was enslaved at the beginning of her relationship with Lindsay. The family’s story spans from the Caribbean to Lindsay’s native England, with Pensacola playing a role in Lindsay’s early career as a naval officer and in the later life of Maria Belle.
German painter Johann Zoffany completed a portrait in 1779 depicting Dido and her Caucasian cousin Elizabeth Murray, an image that was unusual for the time it was created and that inspired the film, which was released in the U.S. on May 2 and will soon play at Gulf Breeze Cinema 4.
The story behind the painting involves British Imperialism, the Atlantic slave trade, abolition, and the politics of race and gender in a time of great transition in Europe and North America.
“From the Pensacola side of history, this is a story that’s played out on a world stage. It takes you from the drawing rooms of England, to the frontier town of Pensacola and back, leading right up to a Revolutionary War battle, the 1781 Battle of Pensacola—this is a family saga,” said Margo Stringfield of the University of West Florida’s Archaeology Institute. “It’s a fascinating story.”
Stringfield has been researching Maria Belle and Lindsay since the early 1990s, after first encountering their names while researching land transfers in colonial Pensacola.
When and where Lindsay first encountered Maria Belle is the subject of Stringfield’s current research, but it is generally accepted that around 1761 Maria Belle gave birth to Dido. Lindsay came to Pensacola in 1764 as part of the British contingency that established a government in West Florida, which the British acquired from the Spanish in 1763 at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War. “He was in the first wave of people that came into West Florida. One of his major tasks was to chart the Northern Gulf Coast,” Stringfield explained.
Lindsay was the commander of British Naval Forces in Pensacola from 1764 to 1765, and it is highly probable that Maria Belle was here with him. In 1765, Maria Belle accompanied Lindsay to England, where Dido was baptized in 1766. After returning to England, Lindsay married in 1768 but continued his career on the high seas, serving the Royal Navy in India and elsewhere until his death in 1788.
Shortly after returning to London, Lindsay entrusted Dido’s care to his uncle, William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield, who served as Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Dido’s life in Lord Mansfield’s household and the influence of his decisions as a judge on the British abolitionist movement is the subject of “Belle.”
“Her great uncle was one of the most forward thinking barristers in England,” Stringfield said. “His decisions in cases related to slavery paved the way for the repeal of slavery in England.”
Records indicate that Maria Belle remained in England until the early 1770s, though it is unclear what role she played in Dido’s upbringing. “I cannot help but think that there had to be contact between the mother and child on some level, but we are not seeing a written record of that to date,” Stringfield said.
As for the relationship between Maria Belle and Lindsay, research is ongoing. “At this point it would be conjuncture to say what their relationship was after the birth of their child, but certainly there is a link there and it’s one Lindsay chose not to ignore,” Stringfield stated. “Lindsay obviously remained in contact with Maria Belle, and he provided her with the means to return to a place that she was familiar with.”
Upon arriving in Pensacola in 1764, Lindsay obtained a lot on the western side of the colonial community, and when he left Pensacola in 1765 he retained ownership of the property. Records show that in 1773, Lindsay began the process of conveying his town lot in Pensacola to Maria Belle, who the document identifies as a “Negro woman of Pensacola,” freed by Lindsay, and who was then living in London. A woman named Maria Belle shortly thereafter paid $200 for manumission in Pensacola, perhaps ensuring her freedom in North America.
The paper trail related to Maria Bell led to archaeological excavations that suggest a genteel presence between 1774 and 1781 on what had been Lindsay’s, and then Maria Belle’s, land.
“We strive to connect the artifacts to the people who used them, so that we arrive at an interpretation that gives us a good sense of who they were and what they were doing in their daily lives,” Stringfield said.
Excavations of a trash-filled water well and a barrel-lined storage pit associated with the house on the property were “indicative of a very comfortable household,” according to Stringfield, and included pieces of wine glass flutes, evidence of tea service and ceramics—overall a concentration of artifacts distinct from those UWF archaeologists uncovered at other colonial sites where a military, and decidedly more male presence, was known to have been.
A Mrs. Bell is listed in a 1781 list of property owners in Pensacola that the Spanish made when they once again assumed control of West Florida after the Battle of Pensacola. After that mention, the trail of Maria Belle goes cold—at least for now.
“We’re continuing our research in terms of Lindsay and Maria Belle to better understand where they were before coming to Pensacola and who else might have been with them,” explained Stringfield, who is currently working on incorporating new information about Maria Belle into a manuscript titled, “Prelude to a Portrait: Searching for Maria Belle.”
“To me the story is extraordinary all the way around,” Stringfield said. “In terms of the film “Belle,” you have a story built around the daughter and the issue of slavery. While there is certainly some creative license taken in telling the story, you still have a message that is very powerful and thought provoking on many different levels.”
WHEN: Coming in July
WHERE: Gulf Breeze Cinema 4, 1175 Gulf Breeze Pkwy.
DETAILS: 932-1244 or movies4gulfbreeze.webs.com