The recent movie ‘Belle’ was a magnet for me as I have been interested in the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Murray for several years, since researching the slave trade in the time of Jane Austen. As the great-niece of Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice of England between 1756 and1788, she lived with him at Kenwood House in Hampstead. There is a famous 1779 portrait where she is shown as a companion of his other great-niece, her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. Legally Belle was a slave but Lord Mansfield ensured that she had her freedom and an inheritance before he died. Little is known of Belle’s life so the movie is fiction based on a framework of facts, but it was beautifully done and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt that it was particularly successful in portraying the limitations of someone in Belle’s position during that era, in limbo between two cultures.
The incident used as the core of the film plot was Lord Mansfield’s ruling against the ship owners in the Zong massacre case in 1783. The ship owners were trying to claim the insurance and the insurers were defending their right to refuse the claim. Two years earlier Captain Luke Collingwood, first time captain, had slaves thrown overboard on the way to Jamaica, when the ship was short of drinking water. There was public outrage when the case came before the courts as an insurance claim and not a murder trial.
An interesting article here that I found worth reading, was about this case as well as another where Lord Mansfield supported the rights of a negro slave, both turning points in the fight for abolition of the slave trade by Britain.