What became of Dido Elizabeth Belle’s mother, Maria Belle?

If you have ever watched the film, Belle, as you would expect, some creative licence was involved, especially when it came to Dido being an orphan, this was not true.

Thomas Hutchinson, the former governor of Massachusetts who saw Dido at Kenwood House in 1779 wrote in his diary that Dido’s mother, Maria Belle, was taken prisoner onboard a Spanish vessel, then brought to England where she gave birth to Dido. Whether this is an accurate recollection of what happened we may never know for certain, but he would have had no reason to fabricate it, but it’s feasible that it was simply the account he had been given and didn’t question it.

What is known though, is that  Maria Belle lived in London until Dido was about 12 or 13, by which time Dido was firmly established at Kenwood House, the home of Lord and Lady Mansfield, where she was cared for, educated and raised as a young lady.

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

But what became of her mother, Maria Belle? I was recently reminded by Etienne Daly about  Dido’s mother, who had been traced by archaeologist, Margo Stringfield, to Pensacola, Florida and you can hear about her fascinating findings in her conversation on Radio WUWF. In the interview she confirms that Maria Belle had moved to Pensacola and lived in a lovely property near the harbour.

As yet, no evidence has been found to confirm whereabouts in London Maria Belle lived or under what status – was she treated as a lady or was she a servant? whichever it may have been, it seems logical Sir John would have arranged accommodation somewhere for her and her newborn, after all, he arranged for Dido to live at Kenwood and his other two illegitimate children to live in Edinburgh, so he was unlikely to leave Dido’s mother to fend for herself.

There is however, absolutely nothing to indicate that Maria ever lived at Kenwood House with her daughter, but, although just speculation at present, it would seem likely she retained some form of contact with her young daughter as she grew up, but to date, no tangible evidence has survived to confirm the theory.

***  Please be aware, the following contains terminology about Maria Belle at the time but which today is regarded today as highly offensive  ***

Let’s go back a few steps, in 1757 Lindsay was made captain of HMS Trent and around the time of Dido’s conception was sailing between West Africa and the Leeward Islands. Given that Gene Adams stated that Dido was born 29 June 1761, and using modern conception calculators, assuming Maria Belle carried full term, then Dido would have been conceived early to mid-October 1760.

In September 1760, Lindsay was in the region of Guinea, West Africa and from there he sailed to the Leeward Islands, mooring briefly at Old Road Harbour, St Kitts and Nevis. He then sailed around the nearby islands, mooring briefly at Port Royal in December 1760. In January 1761 he returned to Port Royal with the ship Bien Amie in tow.

Sussex Advertiser – Monday 11 May 1761

From there the Bien Amie was taken to England, which begs the question, was Maria Belle onboard this ship? The truth is it is simply not known to date, from where Maria Belle originated. It has been suggested she was from Cuba, which is feasible, but again, to date, I have found no evidence to support the theory.

Moving forward a few year to the mid 1760’s Sir John Lindsay, who had at that time just been knighted, was posted to Pensacola, Florida, as captain of HMS Tartar and it was whilst there, that on 20 December 1765, he purchased or acquired two adjacent parcels of land, jointly given the number 6 – one part was to build a house upon, the other  part was an orchard/garden and as we can see below:

The town lot containeth in front or breadth eighty feet, and in depth, one hundred and seventy feet and the said garden lot containeth in front or breadth one hundred and five feet and in depth two hundred and eight feet, to hold the said lots and premises thereby granted together with all the timber and trees thereon growing.

This piece of land was formally registered to him on 4 January 1766 on the proviso that the land was to be enclosed and a dwelling built within 10 years i.e. by 1776 as can be seen below.

Click to enlarge for clarity
Reel 14. Vol 602. Folio 53. Grant of Lands, mortgages and conveyances 1765-1767. Courtesy of the American Philosophical Society

The author, Robin Fabel, in his book, The Economy of British West Florida, 1763-1783, tells us that in 1764, The Planation Act came into effect, which limited trading in West Florida to Britain only, and this included shipping trees to Britain. This would probably have made it lucrative to own a plot of land containing trees, as Sir John would have been able to ship the timber to England for resale.

Fabel also confirmed in his book that on 17 December 1765, Sir John was due to purchase 12 enslaved people from a merchant, Henry Driscoll and his partner, Henry Lizars, these enslaved people named below, were being transported onboard a ship named, The Cumberland :

Michael, Cumberland, Geoffrey, Samuel, Fortune, Charles, Caesar, Quachiba and three women –  Diana, Lucy, Venice and a child.

They were security for a debt of £487, 13 shilling and 8 pence, but tragically though, the ship sank whilst sailing from Jamaica for the Bay of Honduras and was lost on the Banaco shore.

What is not known is whether these people were for Sir John personally, or whether he was acting in the role of an agent for someone else. It’s perfectly feasible Sir John was planning to use these people to work on the land where the house was going to be, but despite my best efforts, it remains speculation at present, but from what is known about Sir John, it feels more likely he was simply acting as an agent.

Sir John returned to London around 1767, and during his absence his daughter, Dido Elizabeth Belle was baptised on 20 November 1766 aged five.  The baptism taking place at St George’s Church, in Bloomsbury with her mother being named simply named as, Maria, the wife of Mr Bell, as we can see here:

London Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: P82/Geo1/001

It is presumed that Maria or Bell’s wife, Maria, as she was named, was present at Dido’s baptism and it’s interesting though, that Dido took her mother’s surname and yet her half siblings, John and Elizabeth were given their father’s surname, albeit with Elizabeth later using her foster/adopted parents surname of Palmer, also.

Anyway, whatever Maria Belle’s domestic circumstances were in Britain, it would be a further seven years before Sir John granted her freedom, and arranging for the land in Pensacola to be transferred to her, allowing her therefore to return to Pensacola to continue her life, but that would be without him or her daughter, Dido. Speculation has been made that Maria and Dido spent time in Pensacola – there is absolutely no supporting evidence for this, and it does seem highly unlikely. 

Here we can see an extract from the property transfer document which confirms Maria Belle to be a free woman,  ‘a negro woman of Pensacola in America, but now of London, aforesaid made free of the other part’. 

Fabel confirmed in his book that the transfer of the property took place on 1 August 1773, and that she paid no money for this transfer, but it does state that she should pay a peppercorn rent on 25 March each year. Fabel wasn’t quite correct with the date as we can see here, it was 10 August 1773.

When you read the entire transfer document you also learn that Sir John visited Edinburgh to conduct this transaction, rather than asking his uncle, Lord Mansfield, the most senior judge in England and that no fee for this transaction was paid by Maria Belle i.e., it was gifted to her, along with her freedom to return to Pensacola. It’s worth noting that this freedom for Maria Belle took place just over a year after Lord Mansfield’s most famous case on slavery of Somerset v Stewart.

This document tells us that Maria Belle was from Pensacola originally, but there appears to be no proof of this as yet, mainly because records for that period are extremely scarce. There were the ships regularly sailing between the likes of West Africa and places such as Cuba, Jamaica and to Florida, so it may be that Maria Belle spent some of her life in Pensacola, which might explain her being ‘formerly of Pensacola’. The fact remains however, that no-one appears to know where she originated from.

The witnesses to Sir John’s signature were James Cunningham and Alexander Campbell, with the document being approved by the Lord Provost and Chief Magistrate of the City of Edinburgh, The Right Honourable Gilbert Laurie as can be seen below.

Click on the image to enlarge

It does beg the question as to whether, whilst in Edinburgh, he visited his other two children, John who would have been aged 6 and Elizabeth, aged 7, whilst I would hope so, I have no supporting evidence. Equally, it’s possible that this could have been when these children arrived in Britain, especially as we know that Elizabeth would later marry in Edinburgh, but there is still much more research into the early lives of these two half siblings to be done. 

Fabel tells us that according to a map of 1781, Maria’s lot was a high status one, facing Cumberland Street and Pensacola Harbour, and given that we have the number of the lot it could only be one of these two, shown on this map, one is on the corner of Cumberland Street, overlooking the harbour as per Faber, but there is a more likely one which again, overlooks the harbour but is on Lindsay Street, which seems far more likely given its owner, Sir John Lindsay, the street having been named in his honour.

It seems safe to assume that once the legal paperwork had been completed, that Maria Belle set off for a new life in Pensacola, to build the house and fence the surrounding land, as per the requirements of the registration document i.e. within 10 years.

Daly, who has been researching Dido Belle for several years, thinks that given her status, as the mother of Dido, that Sir John would have organised transport for her, perhaps onboard a naval vessel, but to date has found nothing to confirm this theory especially as naval vessels were, strictly speaking, not permitted to carry ‘passenger,’ but in my opinion it is more likely that she sailed on one of the regular packet ships that was bound for Jamaica, then on to Pensacola.

At about the time Maria would have left England, records only show an Ann Bell, aged 21 who sailed from London to Pensacola in August 1774, although, I’m fairly convinced she was another female Bell who was taking up residence there.

In both Springfield in her book Historic Pensacola and Fabel’s book, a Maria Belle is named as having paid a manumission fee i.e. purchased her freedom, for which she paid 200 Spanish Milled Dollars (Approx. £48 at the time), to a Phillips Comyn.

Having obtained a copy of manumission (above), I discovered that yes, indeed she did pay the fee, but also that she was buying her freedom from Phillips Comyn, not from Sir John Lindsay – so, it would appear that she had once again, somehow, become enslaved. Phillips Comyn, his father and siblings were merchants, all involved in the selling of enslaved people. 

In the index Maria Belle is described as ‘ Maria Belle a Negro wench’

The document didn’t make any sense, she left London as a free woman and yet, somehow, she had become, Maria Belle

a negro woman slave, about twenty eight years of age, and the property of me, the said Phillips Comyn … fully and freely and absolutely give, grant and remit unto her, the said Maria Belle, her full and entire freedom and liberty forever henceforth, and I do hereby for myself, my executors and administrators forever release and discharge the said Maria Belle of and from all manner of service and services which I the said Phillips Comyn now have, or ever had a right to ask, demand or require from her, the said Maria Belle and I, the said Phillips Comyn for myself, my executors and administrators do further covenant, grant and agree that the said Maria Belle, from and after the date of these presents forever henceforth shall and may pay and repay to and from any parts of the British Dominions or elsewhere without the set trouble, hindrance, fuss or molestation of me, the said Phillips Comyn, my executors or administration.

The manumission was dated 22 August 1774 and was witnessed on 29 August 1774 by none other than Alexander McCullagh, Esquire, Deputy Provincial Secretary for the said province. The same person who witnessed Sir John’s transfer of land to Maria when she arrived in Pensacola on 12 January 1774, as we see below:

Land transfer document witnessed by Alexander Macullagh

Surely, he must have recognised her and known that she was a free woman and land owner? It’s very strange, unless there were two Maria Belle’s, one a free woman, the mother of  Dido Belle and land owner; the other, aged about 28 and in the possession of Phillips Comyn (1743-1777). It’s not impossible but feels rather unlikely.

Having read this document, it raised the question for me as to whether the original suggestion that Dido Belle’s mother, Maria Belle did in fact ever pay the $200. I have been questioning for a while why she would have paid the manumission when she arrived in Pensacola when Sir John sent her off to Pensacola having granted her freedom whilst in Britain – I have no explanation, as yet.

However, returning to Fabel’s book, I also noticed another mention of Maria Belle, this time though it curiously related to her being sold to Phillips Comyn by an Antonio Garson, so with that, I had to find out more about this transaction.

I tracked this down and was very kindly provided with a copy of the document by the Library of Congress, which tells us that Antonio Garson was a yeoman, who was indebted to Phillips Comyn, a merchant and member of the council.

Garson, it would appear, owed Comyn 970 Spanish Dollars or £225, 5 shillings and 8 pence for goods, wares and merchandise supplied to him by Comyns and unable to meet the debt and so he sold some of his possession to make up the value of the debt, this included twelves cows, ten calves, three canoes, several horses, bedding, kitchen items etc and as can be read below…

‘one negro man named John, one other Negroe man named Louis and one Negroe woman named Maria Belle’

This transaction was concluded on 21 March 1774 and it was at that stage that Maria Belle became the property of Phillips Comyns who granted her freedom a few months later. Once again, this transaction was witnessed by Alexander Macullagh.

Was the Maria Belle being bought and sold really Dido’s mother, we may never know for sure, but a Mrs Bell (without the ‘e’), widow, appeared on the 1781 census.

Anglo-Americans in Spanish Archives Pensacola 1781 Census

Stringfield feels sure that the Maria Belle on the 1781 census was Dido’s mother, but it could equally be argued that it was this Mrs Bell, the young lady, Ann Bell, who sailed from London to settle in Pensacola onboard The Successes Increase in August 1774.

After  that potential sighting, in 1781, Maria Belle disappeared from the radar, but hopefully one day there will be an answer as to what became of her. Sadly, this article does raise more questions than it’s been possible to answer, but research continues.

** See an update dated 10 May 2023, in the Comments section of this article **


To find out more about Dido Elizabeth Belle, her family and much more

click on this link.


American Philosophical Society. p128 of  Reel 18

Colonial Office West Florida. CO5/613:238. Original supplied courtesy of the Library of Congress

Colonial Office West Florida. CO5/613:211. Original supplied courtesy of the Library of Congress

Pensacola, Florida; Year: 1774; Page Number: 316

The Florida Historical Quarterly. Volume XXXVII, Jan – Apr 1959

Featured Image

Plan of Pensacola 1764 bearing Sir John Lindsay’s name


11 thoughts on “What became of Dido Elizabeth Belle’s mother, Maria Belle?

  1. sylvia wright

    There was a film, I believe, based on a true story, called 12 Years a Slave, (2013) where a free black man was kidnapped in Washington DC. & sold into slavery in 1841.He had to work as a slave on plantations in Louisiana for 12 years before he was released.
    Maybe this is what happened to Maria Belle?


    1. Sarahmurden

      Yes, I was aware of that story, but in Maria Belle’s case she did appear to regain her freedom from Phillips Comyn, but for how long we may never know.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Sarahmurden

      Thank you for the link, unfortunately it’s not possible to view it in the UK, so I’m not sure which episode of Fake Or Fortune it is 😦


  2. Karin

    I feel like it’s pretty amazing you were able to track her at all. Could it be that Maria Belle was previously enslaved by Comyn before being taken to England, and he challenged the papers from Edinburgh when she returned to Pensacola after many years away? She may not have been actually been under his control, as she was a woman of property, but if he raised a claim she may have paid him off to avoid a court case.


    1. Sarahmurden

      Thank you so much for your comments and that’s an option, but it doesn’t explain Antonio Garson giving this Maria Belle to Comyn as payment of his debt to him.

      In my opinion, the two Maria Belle’s have been conflated. I feel that Sir John’s Maria Belle was granted her freedom in Scotland then left for Pensacola a free woman. The manumission though was for a different Maria Belle, the one who had been enslaved to Garson, given to Comyn as payment of his debt, then freed, but sadly, there’s no way of confirming it. Her age also bothers me slightly – 28, which would have made her 15 when Dido was born, whilst clearly not impossible, it doesn’t sit comfortably with me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Karin

        Yes, it’s possible there were two Maria Belles. Maria is probably the most common woman’s given name, and Belle may have been a common surname. I don’t know how manumission papers normally read, but the language in the Comyn one is so wide ranging, that it made me suspect that Sir John’s Maria ended up back in slavery through legal shenanigans, and had to buy her freedom a second time so she made sure all the bases were covered in the papers. I don’t think age is a barrier to that theory. I believe Sally Heming’s relationship with Jefferson began when she was around 14, And I do wonder how another 28 year old enslaved woman came up with what was a large sum of money in those days.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Eddith9021

        thank you so much Sarah for such a wonderful research, I can’t believe that there are now the possibilities of two Maria Belle.

        I saw a comment from Karin, stating that “I do wonder how another 28 year old enslaved woman came up with what was a large sum of money in those days.” I was also wondering about the same topic.

        if there were two Maria Belle, one was free while the other was enslaved and then bought her freedom shortly, how did the other Maria came up with the large sum of money, especially after she was enslaved just before and can be given to Comyn as payment, this also makes me wonder the age of Dido Belle’s mother.

        I saw English Heritage said something about Maria in Dido’s article
        “In the Pensacola property record, Maria is referred to as previously being enslaved: ‘a Negroe Woman of Pensacola in America but now of London afore and made free’. The price to confirm her freedom is dated 22 August 1774, the manumission transaction for ‘the sum of two hundred Spanish milled dollars … paid by Maria Belle a Negro Woman Slave about twenty eight years of age’. As Dido had been born in 1761, this would place Maria as a young mother of around 15 years of age at the time of Dido’s birth. ”

        I’m not so sure how accurate English Heritage’s source was but alas they already widely distributed the information through their page, again thank you so much for the information, very illuminating and surely fascinating

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Sarahmurden

          Thank you so much, it was painstaking work trying to track down the original documents which Margo Stringfield and English Heritage referred to and involved wading through thousands of pages of manumission documents to find them. Anyway, I got there eventually as it seemed important to actually view the original documents to confirm what they had stated. I have no idea whether they have viewed the original documents or had simply taken Fabel’s book as their source.

          I have notified both English Heritage and Scone Palace of my findings, but to date, have had no acknowledgment from English Heritage.

          The whole Maria Belle situation is very confusing, but I would suggest you take a look at Fabel’s book which I highlighted in the article, it’s freely to read available via Internet Archives but it was only by obtaining the original documents, that for me, questions began to emerge and made me question whether there could have been two Maria Belles.

          Whilst as you can see, I have include extracts from the original documentation showing Sir John legally granting Maria the lot in Pensacola, there is nothing confirming when/how she left England to take possession of the lot. The land transfer document confirms Maria to be made ‘free’ from Sir John at that point, with the document being written on 1 August 1773, signed on 10 August 1773 (I have just added in a copy of that part of the document).

          Interestingly, the land transfer document refers to Maria Belle’s ‘heirs and assigns’ to take ownership of the land in due course – this would have surely meant Dido, but there is no mention in the document of Maria Belle already having the child, which, whilst not important, does strike me as a little curious, as that would have been the ideal place to ensure that Dido would inherit the lot in due course.

          The Maria Belle being owned briefly by Garson, then sold on as payment for a debt to Comyn and aged just 27 seems very young to have been Dido’s mother, but of course, it’s not impossible, she would have been 13/14 when she gave birth to Dido.

          P43 of Fabel’s book provides a brief narrative about the land and manumission and then –

          Page 226 – 4 May 1773 shows Antonio Garson, a nominal manumission payment, and states that Maria Belle was aged 27, rather than 28.

          Page 227 – 21 March 1774 shows Maria Belle being ‘sold’ by Antonio Garson to Phillips Comyn.

          P228 – 22 August 1774 shows Maria Belle and a $200 manumission.

          As Fabel cites his sources it was from there that I was able to obtain copies of the original documents allowing me to include extracts from them in the article, rather than rely on secondary/tertiary source material.

          I have no clear explanation, but I do think there were two Maria Belle’s and that their respective stories have incorrectly been merged into one, this is where viewing the original documents helps a little.

          The problem seems to be around the dates:

          4 May 1773 Garson was making a nominal (£22) manumission payment to grant Maria Belle her freedom and yet on 1 August 1773 Sir John was signing the land transfer, and with it, granting freedom to Maria Belle in Edinburgh.

          This is some 3 months after Garson’s manumission payment was being made to a 27 year old Maria Belle in Pensacola.

          Quite what took place between Garson and Phillips I think is another matter, but I don’t see it as having any relevance to Dido’s mother, and I don’t think the 200 Spanish milled dollars, manumission payment had anything to do with her either – I’m sure it’s red herring.

          The more I have considered this, the more convinced I am that the situation between the two Maria Belle’s has become intertwined, and inadvertently become what is now regarded as fact i.e., that Dido’s mother, received the lot in Pensacola and paid her 200 Spanish milled dollars for her freedom when she arrived there. I think this is incorrect, the dates simply won’t allow for that being the case.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. Eddith9021

    welcome! if there were ever a documentary about Dido and her family, they should definitely contact you!

    that must be so tiring, if that was me, I would be dreaming about pages in my sleep. I agree the original can always provide more scope to the situation.

    Hope English Heritage reached out soon!

    Fabel’s book – nice will do

    It’s interesting if the land and house in Pensacola went to Dido after Maria’s death, she could rent it or sell it for additional income.

    ” a Negroe Woman of Pensacola in America but now of London afore and made free.”
    this is the description of Dido’s Maria Belle.

    ” Page 226 – 4 May 1773 shows Antonio Garson, a nominal manumission payment, and states that Maria Belle was aged 27, rather than 28.”

    ” This is some 3 months after Garson’s manumission payment was being made to a 27 year old Maria Belle in Pensacola.” this stood out to me

    Could this 3 information be correlated and could Sir John Lindsay have bought some sort of manumission paper for Maria Belle making him the owner, but then he set Maria free 3 months later, to keep things neat and legal beyond question.

    ” she would have been 13/14 when she gave birth to Dido.”
    -that certainly very horrific, would this be typical for relationship in West Indies

    ” that Dido’s mother, received the lot in Pensacola and paid her 200 Spanish milled dollars for her freedom when she arrived there. I think this is incorrect, the dates simply won’t allow for that being the case.”

    -that certainly made sense that there could be two Maria Belle and it wasn’t the first time people got mixed up, but what do you think happened to Dido’s Maria Belle and what’s her age during all of this if not 27?

    It’s also intriguing that everything happened at almost the same time as Dido’s Maria Belle sailed to Pensacola.


    1. Sarahmurden

      It’s feasible that Sir John paid the manumission on Maria’s behalf, but to whom? A nominal one was paid to Garson, then the $500 one was paid to Comyn, but there is no tangible evidence that either of these recipients were paid by Sir John.

      To be quite honest none of it makes any sense. All that it’s possible to confirm definitively is that Sir John intended Maria Belle to have the plot of land in Pensacola and that he signed papers in Edinburgh to legally give her the lot in Pensacola and to grant her freedom from him, which whilst it confirms she was enslaved to him, it gives us no idea what her role would have been in London or whereabouts she lived.

      Dido would have been entitled to inherit according to that land transfer document, but we don’t definitely know that Maria ever left England, but it is fairly safe to assume she did, and that from Margo Springfield’s archaeological research of the plot, she believed it belonged to a woman of high status from the remains of items there, but that’s where the knowledge currently ends of Maria Belle’s life.

      Regarding Maria Belle being aged 27/28, I don’t believe that was Dido’s mother, but if it were, then we must be careful not to put 21st century values onto 18th century findings, as life and social mores were very different back then.

      I really don’t know what to think about it all at present, it’s highly confusing. We know from Hutchinson’s meeting with Dido Belle, that Sir John bought a slave girl back to England who gave birth to a daughter. Hutchinson does not however confirm that Dido was Sir John’s daughter, merely that she was onboard the captured vessel, assuming Hutchinson’s information was accurate. The land transfer document states that Maria Belle was ‘of Pensacola’ but whether she was born there, we simply don’t know as so many records haven’t survived.

      Some amazing work was carried out in the 1990s by Gene Adams, which has been built upon by several others more recently as more documents become available, yet there are still so many unanswered questions. I think that as new evidence appears around Dido and her family we have to be prepared to remove our blinkers and be open to re-evaluating and challenging things that have previously been presented as fact. Some questions are likely to remain unanswered which will of course lead to speculation.


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