Dido Elizabeth Belle – we reveal NEW information about her siblings

We’re very excited to be able to bring you some new information about Dido Elizabeth Belle.

Dido was the natural daughter of a former African slave woman and Sir John Lindsay; she was brought up alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray at their great-uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield’s estate, Kenwood House in Hampstead, London. You may have seen the film about Dido’s life, Belle (2013).

Lauren Julien-Box as 'Young Dido' and Matthew Goode as 'Captain Sir John Lindsay' in Amma Asante's Belle.
Lauren Julien-Box as ‘Young Dido’ and Matthew Goode as ‘Captain Sir John Lindsay’ in Amma Asante’s Belle.

Well, today you are going to be the first to know a little bit more about Dido’s family.

Her father, John Lindsay, from a well-connected Scottish family, was a career naval officer who, in the summer of 1764, was knighted and eventually became an admiral.

It is well-known that he fathered Dido; less well-known are his other illegitimate children. In his will, written in 1783, Lindsay left a sum of money for the benefit of his two ‘reputed’ children, John and Elizabeth (he didn’t mention Dido in this document as she was provided for by the Earl of Mansfield and his family).

Captain Sir John Lindsay (1737-1788) by Allan Ramsay
Dido’s father, Captain Sir John Lindsay (1737-1788) by Allan Ramsay; Glasgow Museums

Speculation has long been rife as to the birthplace and true identity of John and Elizabeth… well, we can shed some light on this, and share some information about two further children as well.

Dido Elizabeth Belle was the eldest of Lindsay’s brood of illegitimate offspring, and she was born in June 1761 (her year of birth worked out from a notation against her baptism). Lindsay had arrived in Jamaica in the summer of 1760 aboard HMS Trent (1757), a Royal Naval 28-gun Coventry-class sixth-rate frigate of which he was captain. He had been appointed to the ship since its launch and had already seen action off Cape Finisterre, Spain in 1759 and at the Siege of Quebec (Battle of the Plains of Abraham) in the same year. During the September of 1760 (Dido, if she was born in June 1761, must have been conceived around this time), the Trent was patrolling off the coast of Senegal, returning back to Jamaica at the end of the year.

On 4th January 1761, the Trent, captained by John Lindsay, captured the richly laden French merchant frigate Bien Aimè off Cape Tiburon after a forty-five-minute duel, arriving back in Port Royal, Jamaica with his prize later that month.

View of Port Royal, Jamaica by Richard Paton, 1758
View of Port Royal, Jamaica by Richard Paton, 1758; National Maritime Museum

At Dido Elizabeth Belle’s baptism, which took place in England some five years after her birth, her mother was named as Maria Bell. Reputedly, Maria was a slave being transported in a Spanish galleon which Lindsay had captured.

Thomas Hutchinson, the former governor of Massachusetts met Dido and recounted something of her background in his diary. He claimed that Maria Bell was brought to London on board the slave ship, heavily pregnant. However, it was not a slave ship but the captured Bien Aimè carrying sugar (which had been destined for France), which was the Trent’s prize and which sailed into the Downs under convoy in May 1761.

And, far from travelling home to England himself, Lindsay appears to be fully occupied elsewhere. In the early summer of 1761, the Trent captured a French slave ship off the coast of Guinea-Bissau and brought her into Bunce Island, off Sierra Leone.

On 31st October, he brought two prizes into port at Kingston, Jamaica, a Dutch schooner and a sloop richly laden with indigo, which he took near Haiti. And, there is one further pressing reason why John Lindsay must have been present on the island of Jamaica around May 1761.   

View over Kingston and Port Royal from Craighton, Jamaica
View over Kingston and Port Royal from Craighton, Jamaica, Marianne North; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Between March and July 1762, John Lindsay participated in the Siege of Havana under Vice-Admiral Sir George Pocock. Just before he had sailed from Jamaica, however, he had welcomed the arrival of a second child, a son named John Edward Lindsay who had been born on 19th February 1762. This child was not baptized until 6th November that year, in the church at Port Royal; the record in the baptism register described him as John Edward, son of John Lindsay and Mary Vellet, a mulatto.

The bombardment of Morro Castle on Havana, 1st July 1762. Captain John Lindsay is being rowed out from the Trent to take command of the Cambridge, right.
The bombardment of Morro Castle on Havana, 1st July 1762. Captain John Lindsay is being rowed out from the Trent to take command of the Cambridge, right. National Maritime Museum

Unfortunately, little John Edward was destined to die just over a month later. He was buried on 16th December 1762 at the Palisadoes Cemetery at Port Royal, aged almost ten months.

Captain Lindsay returned to England where, on 10th February 1764, he was knighted. Subsequently, he served during 1764 and 1765 at Pensacola in Florida as the senior officer.

It is not known whether he took Dido and her mother with him, but a Scotsman named George Gauld did make the journey. Working as a surveyor, Gauld made a sketch of the harbour at Pensacola, so we are able to see the scene which would have greeted Sir John Lindsay as he arrived there.

A View of Pensacola in West Florida by George Gauld, c.1765. Library of Congress. Hand colored by Dave Edwards. UWF Archaeological Institute
A View of Pensacola in West Florida by George Gauld, c.1765. Library of Congress. Hand coloured by Dave Edwards. UWF Archaeological Institute

The last two months of 1766 saw three events which had an impact on Lindsay’s life, although he may not have immediately been aware of all of them; while we cannot be sure of Lindsay’s whereabouts, Dido was certainly in London at the time.

A West Indian Flower Girl and Two other Free Women of Color, c.1769.
A West Indian Flower Girl and Two other Free Women of Color, c.1769. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Dido Elizabeth Belle was finally baptised on 20th November 1766 at 5-years of age; the ceremony took place at St George’s Church in Bloomsbury. Her father, now Sir John Lindsay, was not present nor did he bestow his surname upon Dido.

However, five days earlier, on 15th November 1766, another daughter had been born to Lindsay. The girl was named Ann and her mother was ‘Sarah Gandwell, a free negro’. It appears that Lindsay must have been in Jamaica in the first months of that year and that, nine months later, Ann was born on the island.

On 8th December 1766, yet another daughter was born, Elizabeth whose mother was simply named as Martha G. Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Lindsay was baptised a month later, on 10th January 1767, at Port Royal.

Bloomsbury Square, London; British School. Dido Elizabeth Belle was baptized at St George's, Bloomsbury, in 1766.
Bloomsbury Square, London; British School; National Trust Collections. Dido Elizabeth Belle was baptized at St George’s, Bloomsbury, in 1766.

Where was Sir John Lindsay at this time? Had he travelled back to Jamaica after Dido’s baptism, in time to be present to bestow his name on his third daughter at her own baptism ceremony?

If so, then he soon crisscrossed back across the ocean for, during 1767 and 1768, Sir John served as MP for Aberdeen and Montrose. A very big clue that he had indeed been present in Jamaica during the January and February of 1767 can be found in the birth of yet another child.

John Lindsay, son of Sir John Lindsay and Francis [sic] Edwards, a ‘free mulatto woman’ was born on 28th November 1767. Both he and Elizabeth are the two youngsters Lindsay referred to as his ‘reputed children’ in his 1783 will.  It had previously been thought – erroneously – that Elizabeth and John had been born in Scotland.

Frances Edwards was around 18-years of age and had been baptised herself in the church at Kingston just two years earlier.

A correct draught of the harbours of Port Royal and Kingston, with the keys and shoals adjacent &c. from a late accurate survey, by Mr. Richd Jones, engineer, 1756
A correct draught of the harbours of Port Royal and Kingston, with the keys and shoals adjacent &c. from a late accurate survey, by Mr Richd Jones, engineer, 1756. Library of Congress

At Kingston, on 2nd March 1768, we find John’s baptism recorded in the church registers; Ann was not baptised until 10th July 1768 at Port Royal, when she was 20 months of age. As she was not acknowledged in Lindsay’s will at all, possibly she died young although we have not found a burial for her on Jamaica.

After years of ‘sowing his wild oats’, Sir John Lindsay married Mary Milner (1739-1799) on 17th September 1768. The couple had no children of their own and we have to assume that Lindsay was a faithful husband as we have found no further records of illegitimate children belonging to him. But, with Dido settled at Kenwood with her great-uncle, the Earl of Mansfield and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, Lindsay did not neglect his former lover, Maria Bell, Dido’s mother.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, c.1778. Formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany.
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, c.1778. Formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany.

In 1773 Lindsay began a process to transfer a piece of property he owned in Pensacola, Florida to Maria Bell, with the requirement that she build a house there. At the time, Maria Bell was living in London but a year later, when the deal was finalised, she had travelled to America. In the document, she was referred to as ‘a Negro woman of Pensacola, formerly of Pensacola, and then residing in London’.

A plan of Pensacola and its environs in its present state, from an actual survey in 1778, by Joseph Purcell.
A plan of Pensacola and its environs in its present state, from an actual survey in 1778, by Joseph Purcell.

The house that Maria built and lived in was on the corner of Lindsay and Mansfield streets (now Reus and Zaragoza streets), in what was then a high-class area owned by the British. But, during the War of Independence, the Spanish gained control after the 1781 Battle of Pensacola; they compiled a list of property owners which included a Mrs Bell, widow. This is probably Dido’s mother and, if so, is the last known sighting of her.

Spanish Troops at Pensacola, 1781
Spanish Troops at Pensacola, 1781 via Wikimedia.

Elizabeth (born 1766) ended up in Edinburgh in the 1780s where, for reasons as yet unknown, she used the surname Palmer. On the 3rd May 1783, she married.

Peter Hill, merchant, New Kirk Parish & Elizabeth Palmer (same parish) alias Lindsay, daughter of Sir John Lindsay.

Peter Hill (1754-1837) was an Edinburgh bookseller and a great friend of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns. Elizabeth died at Dalmarnock, Glasgow on 26th January 1842, at the age of 76, of ‘decline’, and was buried by the side of her husband in the Canongate, Edinburgh.

John Lindsay (born 1767), retained the Lindsay name and joined the East India Company’s army on the Madras Establishment in 1788. In 1803, he wrote his will, naming his sister Eliza Hill, her husband Peter and his ‘girl and child’, as he referred to his young daughter and her Indian parent.

Lindsay’s own mother, Frances Edwards was still alive and named in his will; she was residing on Rum Lane in Kingston, Jamaica, a thoroughfare leading to the harbour, so he clearly never forgot his Jamaican roots.

It would be a further 18 years before Lindsay died; by that time he had risen from a captain to a brevet colonel. He met his end either at Chitradurga (or Chittledroog as Lindsay knew it) in Karnataka or at Kannur (Cannanore), India (sources disagree on the exact place) on 30th January 1821; he was buried the next day at Kannur. Lindsay’s statement of accounts shows that he died a wealthy man owning two properties, ensuring that his daughter would have been well-provided for.

View of the hill-fort of Chitaldrug (Mysore). Inscribed on front in ink: 'North View of Chittle Droog by Lt Rowley, Engineer, in 1803.
View of the hill-fort of Chitaldrug (Mysore). Inscribed on front in ink: ‘North View of Chittle Droog by Lt Rowley, Engineer, in 1803. British Library

At Cannanore, while commanding the Provinces of Malabar and Canara, Col. John Lindsay, of the 7th regt. N.I.

To a mild, amiable and benevolent disposition, he added gallantry, firmness and manly conduct, which rendered him as valuable to society and his friends as he was to his profession.

Kenwood House belonging to the Earl of Mansfield where Dido Elizabeth Belle lived.
Kenwood House belonging to the Earl of Mansfield where Dido Elizabeth Belle lived. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

To recap, we are now able to give the following children for Sir John Lindsay, all, with the possible exception of Dido, we believe to have been born on the island of Jamaica.

Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761 – 1804) (married John Daviniere, 1793), mother: Maria Bell

John Edward Lindsay (1762 – 1762), mother: Mary Vellet

Ann Lindsay (1766 – unknown), mother: Sarah Gandwell

Elizabeth Lindsay or Palmer (1766 – 1842) (married Peter Hill, 1783), mother: Martha G

John Lindsay (1767 – 1821), mother: Francis [Frances] Edwards

N.B. In the List of Inscriptions on Tombs and Monuments in Madras, vol. 2, by Julian James Cotton (Madras, 1946), under the entry for John Lindsay’s burial in 1821, it is asserted that he married a Miss Diana Bunbury in Madras on 15th January 1816; this is incorrect. The John Lindsay who married Diana Bunbury was John Francis Vesey Lindsay (1783-1830). 

To read more about Dido and her family, please click here or consider subscribing to our blog to receive any future updates.

Sources:

More Than Nelson (www.morethannelson.com)

Jamaican archives

Real Story of ‘Belle’ Has Pensacola Connections by Sandra Averhart, 23rd May 2014

National Archives: PROB 11/1665/109, Will of John Lindsay, Colonel by Brevet in the service of the Honorable East India Company on their Madras Establishment of Madras, East Indies, 9th January 1823

British India Office deaths, burials and ecclesiastical returns

The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies, volume XII, July to December 1821

Dido Elizabeth Belle: a black girl at Kenwood, Gene Adams, Camden History Review 12, 1984, p.10-14

Sussex Advertiser, 11th May 1761

Aberdeen Press and Journal, 17th August 1761

Caledonian Mercury, 11th January 176

N.B. Mary Milner, Sir John Lindsay’s wife, was born on the 11th February 1739 in London

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16 thoughts on “Dido Elizabeth Belle – we reveal NEW information about her siblings

  1. Thank you so much for this, and all your splendid research! As visually lovely as the film “Belle” was, it was such a fairy-tale rewriting of a real woman’s life, and unfortunately most movie-goers accepted it without question. A version closer to the truth would have been equally fascinating, but probably not as marketable; history is seldom so conveniently tidy, nor given to romantic happy endings, as film makers would like. 😉

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    1. Joanne Major

      I did enjoy Belle, purely as a good period drama, but you’re quite right that a more accurate version would have been equally good.

      We’ve been working on this for a little while; we’re thrilled to be able to add something new to Dido’s story with this information on her half-siblings, and we have a little more to come too, in due course. 🙂

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  2. Rachel Kennedy

    Absolutely fascinating! Well done. He sounds a bit of a rogue though .. FYI I live near Aberdeen and am always intrigued to find out more about local history. I did some research on the Duff family (who owned Duff House in Banff) a few years ago and they had a younger son, George, who married a mixed race woman / heiress born in Jamaica in 1700s. Her mother was given her freedom. We need more info in the public domain about these lives. Thank you.

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    1. Joanne Major

      Thank you, Rachel. Your research on the Duff family sounds really interesting; there are so many stories still waiting to be told.

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  3. Pingback: Revealing NEW information about Dido Elizabeth Belle’s siblings – All Things Georgian | First Night History

  4. Suzie Lindesay

    My family are trying to follow our family tree and am ex ited to find that these may well be our descendants.
    My Great grandmother was a Jones who lived in Wales who married a Jeffrey George Lindesay. However I have come to an abrupt stop going back into her descendants.
    I wonder if anyone could help me with this.. There also was a rumour that my grandmother Margaret Lindesay swore connections to the Beau’s Lyon and Queen mother’s lineage.Apparently my great great uncle was black sheep of family and squandered his wealth and land.. I feel I may have my work cut out on this one

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    1. Joanne Major

      Hopefully someone will see this and be able to help further. We touched on the recent history of the Bowes-Lyon family in our second book, A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History, specifically Cecilia Nina Cavendish-Bentinck’s marriage to Claude Bowes-Lyon, 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne and their descendants.

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  6. Ian Burdge

    Hi joanne
    I don’t even know where to start with my comment but thankyou for your amazing research- it’s brought not only confirmation of information my family already has about sir John lindsays children but also new info

    If I briefly explain- my great great great great grandmother & father are Elizabeth Palmer( Lindsay) and Peter hill, who lived in Edinburgh & had 14 children.
    The importance of sir John was such that even my mother & sisters middle names are Lindsay! We have lots of records in our possession incl portraits, letters, correspondence with Robert burns, which has always been very interesting, We new that eliza (as she was known to the family ) was the illegitimate daughter of sir John, along with her 1/2 brother, John, thought not much was known about him. It was only after reading the book “Belle” that I made the connection with Dido- She had never previously been mentioned in our family! And according to my uncle, maybe not even known about, but certainly not talked about. In fact I only found out about this part of the family tree in the last 5 or 10 years. So it was with amazement that I discovered the incredible story of Dido her 1/2 sister, but I also wanted to set the record straight about Elizabeth, as in most records(incl the Belle book), the Elizabeth cited in sir john’s will was attributed to Dido because of her middle name. ( also because I think that not much was known about John &Elizabeth) In fact, my uncle had always said eliza was born in Scotland, as she lived in Edinburgh from a young age, and I had presumed she was adopted by a Mr & Mrs Palmer which could explain the surname change. Your fantastic research has shown that not only was she baptised in Jamaica, but she was probably conceived somewhere in the Caribbean or Florida in early 1766, unless he had made a trip back to the uk or somewhere else at that time, though it seems unlikely with the mother of Ann ( born just before eliza) being in Jamaica. All of which was big news to us.
    Do you know how we can find out sir John’s whereabouts in Feb/march 1766? We have never known anything about her mother, so it would be great to find out who Martha G. was, and where she lived etc.. We have a portrait of eliza I can send you, the family had always presumed she was of white descent, but knew nothing else. How would I go about finding who Martha G. was and would there be any records of her beyond the baptism records? Unless she also moved to Scotland with her daughter?
    Hoping you will reply and we can find out more to fill in the gaps!
    Many thanks
    Ian Burdge

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    1. Sarah Murden

      Hi Ian

      Thank you so much for getting in touch. We were contacted a couple of days ago by another member of your family too who has very kindly sent us a copy of a portrait of Elizabeth (Eliza as you know her). We agree that unlike previously believed, the Elizabeth referred to in Sir John’s will did no doubt relate to Eliza and not Dido, especially as it also made reference to her half-brother, John, who we now know kept in touch with his sister and specifically mentioned her, along with her husband Peter, in his will.

      We’re fairly sure that both siblings were raised in Scotland, but we’ve yet to work out the ‘Palmer’ connection. We’re sure Eliza would have been sent to live with someone known to Sir John Lindsay, especially as it was made quite clear on her marriage certificate that she was his daughter, so the fact was never hidden from her.

      We are still trying to trace Martha G, but with nothing more than a first name and initial for her surname it could take some time, but we haven’t given up hope. Given that both John and Eliza moved to the UK we know for sure that John’s mother remained in Jamaica from details in his will in which he gave her address, so it would seem highly likely that Martha G also remained there.

      As to where Sir John was during around that time we’re still trying to track down his movements, he was certainly travelling between the Caribbean and England as we can place him in both locations, but nothing more specific as yet, but if you keep an eye on this blog post we will add updates here, as and when we find anything substantial – https://wp.me/p3JTNy-3xA

      If you do find anything else, we would love to hear from you.

      S&J

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  7. Upton Riddington

    You say: “Dido Elizabeth Belle was the eldest of Lindsay’s brood of illegitimate offspring, and she was born in June 1761, if the notation against her baptism is correct.”

    I examined the entry in the parish register of St George, Bloomsbury, and there is no note that she was born in June. The entry only records that she was aged 5 years.

    The entry, in reference to November 1766 reads: “20 Dido Elizabeth Dr: [abbrevation of daughter] of Bell & Maria his wife Aged 5Y:”

    20 refers to the date of baptism. The column for birth is left blank in this case.

    Is there some other record of this baptism from which you have derived the birth month as June 1761?

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    1. Joanne Major

      You are quite correct with your understanding of the baptism for Dido and she was 5 years old when baptised, hence a birth year of 1761. We are sorry if our wording was misleading, we have now amended our blog post; the month of Dido’s birth is additional information contained within Gene Adams article. We also have it from another source which unfortunately is not ours to disclose at this time.

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