Belle: life, love and the law in an age of slavery and prejudice

Paul Magrath
4 min readMar 22, 2021
Lord Mansfield (played by Tom Wilkinson) and Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in the film Belle

Belle is a fascinating and compelling film, directed by Amma Asante, which cleverly dramatises a famous legal case and its historical setting; but while it claims to be based on a real story, the basis is in many respects exceedingly slender. The film was made in 2013 but I only found out about it recently and watched it after seeing a documentary about Asante’s work.

The case (about which the film is fairly accurate) is Gregson v. Gilbert (1783) 3 Doug 232, 99 ER 629, also known as The Zong after the name of the ship involved (as is common in admiralty cases). It concerned a claim by shipowners against insurers for compensation for a lost cargo of slaves who had been jettisoned alive on the high seas in order, it was claimed, to save the ship and its crew after water supplies ran short. The judge who decided the case was the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield.

As it happened, Lord Mansfield had in his household at the time the mixed race illegitimate daughter of his seafaring nephew and a black slave. Though referred to as a “mulatta”, this girl was brought up as an educated gentlewoman and eventually given both her liberty and an inheritance. Her name was Dido Elizabeth Belle and the film is a dramatisation of her early life.

There is some suggestion that Dido was readily accepted into the childless Lord Mansfield’s household because he already had another great-niece living there, Lady Elizabeth Murray, whose mother had died. They lived at Kenwood House, between Hampstead and Highgate, which is still there today and overlooks grounds sloping down to a lake where outdoor concerts are given, behind which is an area of woodland bordering on the northern part of Hampstead Heath. I know it well, as a favourite scene of family walks.

Painting of Dido and Elizabeth by David Martin

In the famous painting of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth the two girls appear, with playful expressions of shared amusement, as equals. In the film Belle, they appear so initially, but it becomes clear that while Dido might have been treated as a lady’s companion, her status was by no means equal to that of Lady Elizabeth. When guests are invited to dinner, she is not included, though allowed to join the party afterwards in the drawing room. This precise delineation of her status seems cruel, but it also has a narrative message: Lord Mansfield, the lawyer and judge, is a stickler for rules. It was his respect for rules, those of family obligation, that compelled him initially to welcome Dido under his roof; and it is thanks to other rules, the conventions of polite society, that he feels unable to welcome her into the dining room, at any rate when guests are present. He is, by temperament, enslaved to a rules-based order.

Having established Dido’s situation, the film then introduces two narrative threads. One concerns courtship and romance, some of it of a pretty offensive nature, in which the two girls, in different ways, are seen as little better than marital chattels. The other concerns the law, and in particular the case of The Zong.

Here the film introduces, by sleight of characterisation, a hefty dose of dramatic licence. In real life, Dido met and eventually married a French man by the name of John Davinier. In the film, as well as being one of her competing love interests, Davinier is cast as a pupil barrister wanting to join Lord Mansfield’s chambers. His passion for justice in the Zong case offers a contrast to Mansfield’s insistence on law as a set of clear, predictable rules.

I am ready to forgive this blatant remoulding of the facts of Dido’s life because it enables Belle, as a film, to explain the historical background to the legal issues in a clear and convincing way to a modern (non legal) audience. Imagine how arduous it might have been if, instead of Bridgertonesque frolics in Vauxhall pleasure gardens and secret coach-rides through the cobbled streets of London, we had spent all that time in Lord Mansfield’s court hearing the barristers plead their competing cases… Instead, the court (played by Middle Temple Hall) is reserved for the film’s dramatic finale.

The courtship story and the court / ship story both run their course. In the end, both love and justice triumph. Lord Mansfield upholds the law, which treats the slaves as no different from any other insured cargo, but finds sufficient evidence of fraud to deny the shipowners’ claim. It was in the earlier case of Somerset v Stewart (1772) 98 ER 499 (also known as Somersett’s case) that Lord Mansfield famously described the condition of slavery as “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law”. In The Zong, he finds positive law does indeed support the trade and therefore the insurability of the slaves as cargo; but that, on the facts, a claim based on that law is not made out.

The ardent Davinier having fallen foul of Mansfield’s temper is finally welcomed back into the fold and his match with Dido blessed. This bit, too, is a stretch of the facts; their marriage came after Lord Mansfield’s death; but we can let it pass on the grounds that it helps tie up the loose ends before the credits.

We have not quite finished with The Zong, however. The BBC is about to present a radio drama, based on a play for Bristol Old Vic, called The Meaning of Zong. I’ll let you know what I think of it.

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Paul Magrath

I'm Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR - the leading supplier of law reports for England and Wales.