LAST week I went to an exhibition about a stately home in London — Kenwood House. It featured a portrait of a black woman, Dido Elizabeth Lindsay, who may well have been Jamaican, and who was brought up in the stately home.
The portrait of Dido is well known; it is one of the few 18th century portraits of a black woman which does not depict her as a maid. Instead, Dido poses with her white cousin, very much her equal. She is dressed in considerable finery and comes across as confident and flirtatious.
Dido’s history is an interesting one. She was born in 1761, the illegitimate daughter of Royal Navy Captain John Lindsay, who was the nephew of the Earl of Mansfield. She was born when his warship was out in the West Indies moving between Cuba and Jamaica.
Little is known of her mother, merely that she was black and her name was Maria Belle. But Captain Lindsay must have had some affection for the little girl’s mother. It would have been easy to abandon the little brownskinned child in Jamaica in the way that thousands of white men abandoned their mixedrace progeny, both at the time and since. Instead, Captain Lindsay did an unusual thing. He not only acknowledged Dido as his child, but he sent her back to England to be brought up by his uncle in considerable luxury and splendour at Kenwood House.
Mansfield and his wife were childless, but they were already raising another niece, Lady Elizabeth Murray, and they welcomed Dido into the family. Initially she seems to have been a playmate for her cousin Elizabeth. However, for the 30 years she lived at Kenwood, Dido was always more than a servant, if not quite the equal of her white relatives.
The distinction may have been as much about the fact she was illegitimate, as it was about the fact she was black. For instance, Dido would not always dine with the rest of the family, especially if they had guests, but she would join the ladies for coffee afterwards in the drawing room. As she grew older, Dido took responsibility for the dairy and poultry yards at Kenwood. But this was not an unusual role for daughters of the gentry to take on.
More interestingly, she also helped Earl Mansfield with his correspondence. He was a leading lawyer who would go on to become Lord Chief Justice. So this was an unusual role for a woman, whatever her colour. And being trusted to do this suggests that not only was she well educated but that Mansfield respected her intelligence.
Her allowance was several times the salary of a servant; but not as much as her white (legitimate) cousin. When Mansfield died he left Dido a woman of substance with a lump sum legacy and a pension for life. Most important, he confirmed that she was a free woman. Once her benevolent aristocratic relative died, Dido married an army officer, had three sons by him and finally died herself in 1804.
But most interesting of all, in 1772 when Dido would have been about 11, Mansfield in his capacity as Lord Chief Justice of England made a famous ruling in the Somerset case. This historic ruling was commonly understood at the time to mean that slavery was illegal in England.
It was a milestone in the campaign against slavery in the British Empire. And it is not unreasonable to suppose that Mansfield was swayed, not just by the letter of the law, but by his pretty little brown niece who had wound the family around her little finger.
Diane Abbott is the British Labour party spokeswoman on public health and MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington