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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Major

Dido Elizabeth Belle: revealing her half-siblings

This is an updated post of my original on a former blog. It reveals information about Dido Elizabeth Belle’s siblings, much of which was unknown when first posted.

Dido was the natural daughter of a former African enslaved woman and Sir John Lindsay. She was brought up at Kenwood House in Hampstead, London alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, and also at Lincoln's Inn Fields and Bloomsbury. The girls' great-uncle William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield owned the estate. You may have seen the film about Dido’s life, Belle (2013).

Lauren Julien-Box as ‘Young Dido’ and Matthew Goode as ‘Captain Sir John Lindsay’ in Amma Asante’s, Belle.

Dido's father, Captain John Lindsay, was from a well-connected Scottish family; his mother was Lord Mansfield’s sister. Lindsay was a career naval officer who, in the summer of 1764, was knighted and eventually became Admiral of the Red.

It is well-known that he fathered Dido; less well-known are his other illegitimate children. In his will, written in 1783, Lindsay left a sum of money for the benefit of his two ‘reputed’ children, John, and Elizabeth. It had been assumed that the Elizabeth referred to was Dido, but we now know this to be incorrect. Sir John didn’t mention Dido in his will, as he knew she would be provided for by the Earl of Mansfield and his family.

Dido’s father, Sir John Lindsay KB (1737-1788) by Allan Ramsay. Glasgow Museums

Speculation has long been rife as to the identity of John and Elizabeth. I can shed light on this and share some information about two further children as well.

Dido Elizabeth Belle was the eldest of Lindsay’s brood of illegitimate offspring, and she was born in June 1761 (her year of birth worked out from a notation against her baptism). Lindsay had arrived in Jamaica in the summer of 1760 aboard HMS Trent (1757), a Royal Naval 28-gun Coventry-class sixth-rate frigate of which he was captain. He had been appointed to the ship since its launch and had already seen action off Cape Finisterre, Spain in 1759 and at the Siege of Quebec (Battle of the Plains of Abraham) in the same year. During the September of 1760, the Trent was patrolling off the coast of Senegal, returning to Jamaica at the end of the year. Dido, if she was born in June 1761, must have been conceived during this time.

On 4th January 1761, the Trent, captained by John Lindsay, captured the richly laden French merchant frigate Bien Aimè off Cape Tiburon after a forty-five-minute duel. Captain Lindsay arrived back in Port Royal, Jamaica with his prize later that month. At Dido Elizabeth Belle’s baptism, which took place in England some five years after her birth, her mother was named Maria Bell. Reputedly, Maria was a slave being transported in a Spanish galleon that Lindsay had captured.

Thomas Hutchinson, the former governor of Massachusetts met Dido and recounted her history in his diary. He claimed that Maria Bell was brought to London on board a slave ship, heavily pregnant. However, it was not a slave ship but the captured Bien Aimè carrying sugar (destined for France), which was Lindsay’s prize, and which sailed into the Downs under convoy in May 1761.

Far from travelling home to England himself, Lindsay was occupied elsewhere. In the early summer of 1761, the Trent captured a French slave ship off the coast of Guinea-Bissau and brought her into Bunce Island, off Sierra Leone. On 31st October, he brought two prizes into port at Kingston, Jamaica, a Dutch schooner and a sloop richly laden with indigo, which he took near Haiti. There is one further pressing reason why John Lindsay must have been present on the island of Jamaica around May 1761.

Between March and July 1762, John Lindsay participated in the Siege of Havana under Vice-Admiral Sir George Pocock. Just before he sailed from Jamaica, however, he had welcomed the arrival of a second child, a son named John Edward Lindsay who had been born 19 February 1762. This child was not baptised until 6 November that year, in the church at Port Royal. He was described in the baptism register as John Edward, son of John Lindsay and Mary Vellet, ‘a mulatto.’

The bombardment of Morro Castle on Havana, 1st July 1762. Captain John Lindsay is being rowed out from the Trent to take command of the Cambridge, right. National Maritime Museum

Unfortunately, little John Edward died just over a month later. He was buried on 16 December 1762 at the Palisadoes Cemetery at Port Royal, aged almost ten months. Captain Lindsay returned to England where, on 10 February 1764, he was knighted. Subsequently, he served during 1764 and 1765 at Pensacola in Florida as Commander in Chief of the West Florida Fleet. It is not known whether he took Dido and her mother with him, but a Scotsman named George Gauld did make the journey. Working as a surveyor, Gauld sketched the harbour at Pensacola, so we can see the scene which would have greeted Sir John Lindsay as he arrived there.

A View of Pensacola in West Florida by George Gauld, c.1765. Library of Congress. Hand-coloured by Dave Edwards. UWF Archaeological Institute

The last two months of 1766 saw three events that had an impact on Lindsay’s life, although he may not have immediately been aware of all of them. While we cannot be sure of Lindsay’s whereabouts, Dido was certainly in London at the time.

Dido Elizabeth Belle was baptised on 20 November 1766 at 5-years of age; the ceremony took place at St George’s Church in Bloomsbury. Her father was not present, nor did he bestow his surname upon her. However, five days earlier, on 15 November 1766, another daughter had been born to Lindsay. The girl was named Ann and her mother was ‘Sarah Gandwell, a free negro.’ It appears that Lindsay must have been in Jamaica in the first months of that year and that, nine months later, Ann was born on the island.

On 8 December 1766, yet another daughter was born. She was Elizabeth, and her mother was simply named as Martha G on the record of her baptism a month later, on 10 January 1767 at Port Royal. This is the same Elizabeth who was named in Sir John Lindsay’s will.

Bloomsbury Square, London; British School. National Trust Collections. Dido Elizabeth Belle was baptized at St George’s, Bloomsbury, in 1766.

Where was Sir John Lindsay at this time? Had he travelled back to Jamaica after Dido’s baptism, in time to be present to bestow his name on his third daughter at her baptism ceremony? If so, then he soon crisscrossed back across the ocean for, during 1767 and 1768, Sir John served as MP for Aberdeen and Montrose. However, a very big clue that he had indeed been present in Jamaica during the January and February of 1767 can be found in the birth of yet another child.

John Lindsay, son of Sir John Lindsay and Francis [sic] Edwards, a ‘free mulatto woman’ was born on 28 November 1767. He is the other ‘reputed’ child named in Lindsay’s will. It had previously been thought – erroneously – that Elizabeth and John had been born in Scotland. It can now be proved that they were born in Jamaica. John’s mother, Frances Edwards was around 18-years of age and had been baptised herself in the church at Kingston just two years earlier.

At Kingston, on 2 March 1768, John’s baptism took place. His half-sister, Ann was not baptised until 10 July 1768 at Port Royal, when she was 20 months of age. As she was not acknowledged in Lindsay’s will at all, possibly she died young (although no burial has been found for her in Jamaica).

A correct draught of the harbours of Port Royal and Kingston, with the keys and shoals adjacent &c. from a late accurate survey, by Mr Richd Jones, engineer, 1756. Library of Congress

Just over six months after his second son's baptism, Sir John Lindsay married Mary Milner (1739-1799). The couple had no children of their own and it must be assumed that Lindsay was a faithful husband as I have found no further records of illegitimate children belonging to him. He also held his former lover, Maria Bell, Dido’s mother, in some regard as he did not neglect her.

In 1773 Lindsay began a process to transfer a piece of land he owned in Pensacola, Florida to Maria, with the requirement that she build a house there. At the time, Maria was living in London but a year later, when the deal was finalised, she had travelled to America. In the document, she was referred to as a ‘Negro woman of Pensacola, formerly of Pensacola, and then residing in London.’ The house that Maria lived in at Pensacola was on the corner of Lindsay and Mansfield Streets (now Reus and Zaragoza streets), in what was then a high-class area owned by the British.

During the War of Independence, the Spanish gained control after the 1781 Battle of Pensacola. They compiled a list of property owners which included a Mrs Bell, widow. This is probably Dido’s mother and, if so, is the last known sighting of her.

Elizabeth (born 1766) ended up in Edinburgh in the 1780s where, for reasons yet unknown, she used the surname, Palmer. On 3 May 1783, she married.

Peter Hill, merchant, New Kirk Parish & Elizabeth Palmer (same parish) alias Lindsay, daughter of Sir John Lindsay.

Peter Hill (1754-1837) was an Edinburgh bookseller and a great friend of the Scottish poet, Robert Burns. Elizabeth died at Dalmarnock, Glasgow on 26 January 1842, aged 76 and of ‘decline.’ She was buried by the side of her husband in the Canongate, Edinburgh.

John Lindsay (born 1767) retained his rightful surname and joined the East India Company’s army on the Madras Establishment in 1788. In 1803, he wrote his will, naming his sister Eliza Hill, her husband Peter and his ‘girl and child,’ as he called his young daughter and her Indian parent. His mother, Frances Edwards was still alive and named in his will. She was residing on Rum Lane in Kingston, Jamaica, a thoroughfare leading to the harbour, so he never forgot his Jamaican roots.

It would be a further 18 years before John died; by that time, he had risen from a captain to a brevet colonel. He met his end on 30 January 1821 either at Chitradurga (Chittledroog as it was then called) in Karnataka or at Kannur (Cannanore), India (sources disagree on the exact place). He was buried the next day at Kannur and his statement of accounts shows he died a wealthy man owning two properties.

At Cannanore, while commanding the Provinces of Malabar and Canara, Col. John Lindsay, of the 7th regt. N.I.
To a mild, amiable and benevolent disposition, he added gallantry, firmness and manly conduct, which rendered him as valuable to society and his friends as he was to his profession.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, c.1778.

Kenwood House.

To recap, these are the following children for Sir John Lindsay. Although Dido’s birthplace remains unknown, the rest were all born in Jamaica.

Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761–1804) (married John Davinière, 1793), mother: Maria Bell

John Edward Lindsay (1762–1762), mother: Mary Vellet

Ann Lindsay (1766–unknown), mother: Sarah Gandwell

Elizabeth Lindsay or Palmer (1766–1842) (married Peter Hill, 1783), mother: Martha G

John Lindsay (1767–1821), mother: Francis [Frances] Edwards

N.B. In the 'List of Inscriptions on Tombs and Monuments in Madras,' vol. 2, by Julian James Cotton (Madras, 1946), under the entry for John Lindsay’s burial in 1821, it is asserted that he married a Miss Diana Bunbury in Madras on 15th January 1816; this is incorrect. The John Lindsay who married Diana Bunbury was John Francis Vesey Lindsay (1783-1830).


Etienne Daly (who has been researching Dido's life for almost a decade)

More Than Nelson (

Jamaican archives

‘Real Story of ‘Belle’ Has Pensacola Connections’ by Sandra Averhart, 23rd May 2014

The National Archives: PROB 11/1665/109, Will of John Lindsay, Colonel by Brevet in the service of the Honorable East India Company on their Madras Establishment of Madras, East Indies, 9th January 1823

British India Office deaths, burials and ecclesiastical returns

The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies, volume XII, July to December 1821

‘Dido Elizabeth Belle: a black girl at Kenwood,’ Gene Adams, Camden History Review 12, 1984, p.10-14

Sussex Advertiser, 11th May 1761

Aberdeen Press and Journal, 17th August 1761

Scotland's People

This article is a revised version of my original which appeared on the All Things Georgian blog (26 June 2018).


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