The facts behind the movie “Belle”

The other evening I saw “Belle,” an enjoyable movie about Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of a West Indian slave, who was adopted into the family of William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

It’s a sweet love story.  It is an interesting picture of the life of the 18th century British aristocracy, and the interplay of race and social rank.  And the real Belle must have been a remarkable person.  BUT:

It is less than just to Lord Mansfield, who is depicted as an old fogy who needed to be prodded by idealistic young people to do the right thing.

Lord Mansfield was an opponent of slavery who, as a judge, was faced with the fact that slavery was established in law.  Only a naive person would think that he was in a position to abolish slavery simply by decree.  But he established judicial precedents, within the existing law, that weakened slavery.

Mansfield in the movie is shown as reluctantly accepting the child Belle into his household because she is the illegitimate daughter of his nephew, Admiral Sir John Lindsey.  In fact he was not reluctant at all, and Belle was not a blood relation.  She was the daughter of a pregnant mulatto woman liberated from a Spanish ship that Lindsey captured in war.

The movie focuses on the Zong case, in which Mansfield ruled against owners of a slave ship who claimed insurance compensation for chained slaves overboard on a voyage.

The Somersett case, in which Mansfield ruled that a runaway slave need not return to his master, was much more significant.    Mansfield’s decision was that, in the absence of a specific law establishing slavery, it could not be permitted because it was inherently “odious”.

This was roughly the same position that Abraham Lincoln took prior to being elected President.  He said he did not have the legal authority to abolish slavery where it existed, because it was established by the Constitution, but slavery was so obviously wrong that it could not be allowed to spread into new territories.   This was unacceptable to slaveowners, which is the reason for the Civil War.

At the end of the movie, it seems to me, the characters spoke and thought more like contemporary people than people of their own time.  As if the present generation represents a pinnacle of wisdom!  I think that is a common flaw of historical movies.  I think Amistad would have been a better movie if the John Quincy Adams characters had made the arguments that the real John Quincy Adams made, and not what Steven Spielberg thinks he should have made.   The movie Lincoln was better because it put Lincoln in the context of his times.

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Click on ‘The Black Must Be Discharged’: the Abolitionists’ Debt to Lord Mansfield for more background by Stephen Underwood for History Today.

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