The famous portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. Belle was the daughter of an enslaved African woman and Sir John Lindsay, a British naval officer. After Lindsay brought his daughter to England, she lived with the Earl of Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, at Kenwood House in Hampstead. Mansfield issued the Somersett decision of 1772, which clarified English law in regard to slavery. The decision stated that slavery in England—as opposed to the colonies— had no legal basis (which meant that a slave owner could not force a slave to return to the West Indies once he had set foot on free soil). “The state of slavery is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law,” said Mansfield in his judgment.
Much speculation has arisen in regard to this portrait, whose artist is uncertain. Is Belle poised to run an errand, her basket of fruits perched on her arm? Does her cousin restrain her playfully, or touch her with an affectionate hand? Why does Belle point at her own cheek in a curiously awkward gesture? Perhaps she calls attention to her contrasting complexion in order to suggest that the difference is, after all, only “skin deep.” Certainly, Belle occupied a privileged position in Mansfield's household.
My character Marina Garrod is the daughter of a Jamaican planter and a slave on his plantation. This young woman becomes a pampered heiress in London society but discovers that she can't leave her past behind. There were a number of these mixed-race children whose fathers sent them “home” to England, where they might hope to encounter less open prejudice and live in a free society. On the whole these children were the lucky ones. While Britain had halted its participation in the slave trade in 1807, slavery itself endured for several decades more in the British Empire. And, shockingly, the government provided thousands of ordinary English people with financial compensation when they were forced to free their slaves.