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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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…
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.
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
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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
Plan of Pensacola 1764 bearing Sir John Lindsay’s name