A history of Britain’s anti-slavery struggle that begins with a child.
Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a slave, known as Maria, and her aristocratic British lover, Sir John Lindsay, was raised as the adopted daughter of Lindsay’s uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, and his wife, Lady Mansfield. With little information available on Dido herself, Byrne (The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, 2013, etc.) places her at the center of an engrossing, and horrifying, history of the strident, combative and ultimately successful abolition movement in England. Where Dido was born and what relationship Lindsay had with her mother are unanswered questions. “The only thing we can know for sure,” writes the author, “is that Captain Lindsay took a bold and unconventional step in arranging for his small daughter to be…entrusted to a family member to be brought up as a young lady.” That family member was Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, the most powerful magistrate in the land, who ruled on several landmark slavery cases. About 15,000 blacks lived in London in the 18th century, some as servants, some as middle-class landowners. Despite widespread prejudice, even marriage between blacks and whites was not condemned “so long as it did not cross the class divide.” But runaway slaves were still subject to capture and resold or returned to their former owners. The “trade in human flesh” flourished in Britain, where slaves were essential as labor on sugar plantations in the island colonies. Despite—or, Byrne speculates, because of—Mansfield’s widely known affection for Dido, the judge proved cautious in his decisions, frustrating such ardent abolitionists as Granville Sharp, who sued for the rights of captured slaves. Ultimately, Mansfield agreed: Slavery, he wrote, “is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law.”
Byrne brings to this brief history an eye for telling details of daily life, slaveholders’ unthinkable cruelty, and the fervent work of a few good men and women who changed their world.