Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.
Phillis Wheatley, “On Imagination” in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773
“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”
― Voltaire, Questions sur les Miracles à M. Claparede, Professeur de Théologie à Genève, par un Proposant: Ou Extrait de Diverses Lettres de M. de Voltaire 1765
“The insurer takes upon him the risk of the loss, capture, and death of slaves, or any other unavoidable accident to them: but natural death is always understood to be excepted: by natural death is meant, not only when it happens by disease or sickness, but also when the captive destroys himself through despair, which often happens: but when slaves are killed, or thrown into thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection on their part, then the insurers must answer.”
Citation from European Law in 1781 as cited on the website http://www.hullwebs.co.uk/content/j-georgians/people/william-wilberforce/slaveship-zong.htm
In another life, I was an 18th Century European Literature scholar. I admired and today I still love the writing from this period, when a few very privileged white, Christian men (and even fewer women [although they were notable]) dared to think outside the box of the society that produced them. They wrote thought-provoking, brave works: A Modest Proposal, The Social Contract, the first Encyclopedia of general knowledge, the comedy the Barber of Seville and the revolutionary melodrama the Robbers, as well as the first truly modern novels Clarissa, Dangerous Liaisons, and the Sorrows of Young Werther. The philosophes of the Anglo-European Enlightenment wrote about all the things that matter to us now: law, religious tolerance, prisons, social conventions, and human rights. They also wrote about sex, love, nature, modern art, and the psychology of the emotions.
So imagine my joy at running across a film entitled Belle as I crunched on a sandwich after visiting a sick friend at the hospital today.
As I channel-surfed, here is the description I came upon:
The illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a British admiral plays an important role in the campaign to abolish slavery in England.
I hesitated. The movie had already started 15 minutes earlier, and I thought, “I’ll never be able to follow this. Because I don’t know anything about slavery in the 18th Century.”
Which is absolutely true. I read the African American 18th Century poet Phillis Wheatley on my own, many years after finishing my degree. I know a bit about slavery in 19th Century America, thanks to reading slave narratives as well as Huckleberry Finn and watching movies on the subject. But my knowledge of the 18th Century – this period that focuses so passionately on the questions of human rights – is the knowledge of white people in white Europe and England.
“Well,” I thought. “I guess I better take a look.”
And oh did I learn something. Because the story was very new to me.
Belle meshes an imagined story about a real person depicted in a real painting with the history of a crucially important trial.
I’d never heard of the Zong Trial but it’s important.
The Zong trial involves the massacre of slaves on a ship bound for Jamaica, and the English investors are suing the insurance company for payment on the loss of their “cargo.” But what happened was that the owners purposely killed the slaves because they were ill, and because a legal provision (quoted at the top of this post) allowed for restitution of losses in case of accidental or necessary death of the slaves, but not in the case of their “natural” death by disease.
The trial, its appeal and the publicity it received played an important part in the Abolitionist movement in England, and is thought to have influenced the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1788.
The focus of the film is the painting’s subject, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the illegitimate daughter of Sir John Lindsay. Dido navigates a strange marginal zone in the aristocratic circles of late 18th Century England. She is wealthy (she is the heiress to her father’s fortune) but she is not white; she is a family member, yet she is illegitimate. As a result she receives a fantastic education, but does not ever dine with the family when visitors come to the house. She is a sort of poorly kept secret – an object of fascination and in some cases repulsion at social gatherings — a person who is completely a foreigner in her own home and in her own country.
Dido’s adopted father, Lord Mansfield, is the LordChief Justice who must rule on this slavery case. This is actually true historically.
The rest is fiction, but it’s gripping. Torn between the legal battle and his love for his adopted daughter, Lord Mansfield plans for Dido not to marry at all. He explains this wish because no one “worthy” will marry her, but I found myself wondering if an unspoken fear was the specter of miscegenation – that merging of the races that will become such a concern to racialist ideologies of the 19th Century and that still haunt us today.
I really recommend this film for a great sense of how racial identity is beginning to take shape and how debates about freedom in Anglo-Europe and here in the US are linked in truly frightening ways to questions of profit and capital.
And I won’t tell you what happens. But I will share that the resolution is a very 18th Century one, and that Rousseau and Lessing would approve. So would William Godwin (Mary Shelley’s father), and Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley’s mother).
I wonder what Phillis Wheatley would think.
See it for yourself, and let me know.
Oh, and how’s my coloring book project going so far?
Fantastic. Thanks for asking.
Read Director Amma Asante’s discussion of how she became interested in this material here.
Categories: Art and Literature