Amma Asante's film Belle introduces audiences to 18th-century London's thriving black community

The film is based on the story of a mixed-race woman with a dazzling family - in Georgian England

In 1780, The Gentleman's Magazine published a brief obituary of a Westminster grocer. Shopkeepers did not often attract the honour of notice in the society journals of Georgian London, but this one had, thanks to his wit, warmth and bonhomie, got to know an extraordinary range of writers, artists and politicians. Using more words than 18th-century elegance required, the obituary noted that he would be "immortalised by the epistolary correspondence of Sterne" – Laurence Sterne, the author of Tristram Shandy.

One thing about this London character The Gentleman's Magazine did not consider worthy of note. Born on a slave ship in 1729, Ignatius Sancho was black. As a Westminster freeholder, he had in 1774 been the first recorded black voter in Britain. His obituary may be the first ever here for a person of African descent. Yet somehow the race of this pioneer author, musician and campaigner – whose posthumously published letters would become an early classic of black British literature – did not rate a mention.

Sancho was not the only one to have emerged out of oblivion. A few of his black contemporaries did so, too, either through their own talents or via a link with leading figures. Opening tomorrow, director Amma Asante's film Belle will introduce to a wider audience the story of one very unusual black Londoner of the 18th-century. Daughter of the Scottish naval commander John Lindsay and his slave-born Caribbean consort, Dido Elizabeth Belle fires a merry and mischievous glance out of a 1779 double portrait with her friend and cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray. That bold look has inspired centuries of speculation.

Dido Belle became the de facto adopted daughter, assistant and then estate manager of her great-uncle – the Lord Chief Justice of England, the 1st Earl of Mansfield – at his Kenwood home. Ever since the 1770s, when Mansfield's judgment in the Somersett and then (in 1783) the Zong cases paved a legal way for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, friends and foes have wondered about Dido Belle's role in changing the course of world history. Defenders of slavery feared that she "ruled" the Lord Chief Justice's household. Visitors to Kenwood spotted that her mighty relative "showed the greatest attention to everything she said".

An heiress in her own right, great-niece of a grandee who arguably wielded more power than the Prime Minister, Dido Belle was hardly a typical mixed-race Georgian. (Even so, the ambiguity left behind by his own equivocal rulings on slavery meant that Mansfield took care to describe his protégée as a free woman when he left her a generous bequest in his will.) Most of her fellow Londoners of African, Caribbean and mixed descent did not run stately homes or have a say in high affairs of state. They lived thoroughly ordinary lives among the booming city's working, trading and entertaining classes. Jerry White, the peerless historian of London, writes in his book about the 18th-century city (A Great and Monstrous Thing) that "what evidence we have points to the full integration of blacks into metropolitan plebeian life." That, perhaps, is the most remarkable story of all.

‘Portrait of an African’, thought to be a depiction of Ignatius Sancho ‘Portrait of an African’, thought to be a depiction of Ignatius Sancho (Bridgemanart.com)

Yet we know about, say, Francis Barber, the Jamaican servant – in effect, a beloved adopted son – who lived in Dr Johnson's household for 31 years. Barber helped with the compilation of the Dictionary, and in 1784 inherited his books and became the great lexicographer's legatee. When, as he regularly did, Johnson flayed apologists for slavery, his fury stemmed from deeply held principle – but it was also very personal. "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" he wrote about the American rebels and their fight for whites-only "freedom".

Other black Londoners committed their stories to print. In 1789, 64 years before Solomon Northup's 12 Years a Slave, Olaudah Equiano published his Interesting Narrative of an ocean-crossing journey that took him from an Igbo village in present-day Nigeria across the seas to bondage in Virginia, a far-flung career in the Royal Navy, work as a Caribbean trader to save the cash to buy his freedom, and London life as an anti-slavery organiser. Some historians doubt Equiano was actually born in "Benin".

Sceptics suggest that he reconstructed his idyllic African childhood from memories of older slaves on a South Carolina plantation. But where the Interesting Narrative can be checked out, it stands up to scrutiny. His book gave a timely filip to the accelerating campaign against "the inhuman traffic of slavery". At intervals, other slave narratives would boost the cause. They included, in 1831, the first by a woman: The History of Mary Prince, from Bermuda. Incidentally, in Montserrat in the 1760s, Equiano witnessed free blacks captured by subterfuge and returned to bondage – Northup's fate 75 years later, as recounted in 12 Years a Slave.

In 1772, Mansfield's judgment in the Somersett case – over a West Indian kidnapped by his alleged owner – effectively freed all people formerly deemed to be "slaves" in England. To the Lord Chief Justice, in words that would echo around the world, the state of slavery "is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged."

How many other black or mixed-race people lived in London in the days when Dido Belle hobnobbed with the Lord Chief Justice up at Kenwood and Equiano looked forward to a time of liberation when "the sable people shall gratefully commemorate the auspicious era of extensive freedom"? During his deliberations, Mansfield had estimated that the case affected 14,000 "slaves". Many other free black men and women lived in England. After 1783, when thousands of black loyalists who fought for Britain in the American war of independence arrived in London, the numbers grew further. To Jerry White, the black presence was "throughout the century... a striking feature of metropolitan life". By the early 1790s, when the young William Wordsworth first plunged from the Lakes into the Smoke, he catalogues (in his autobiographical epic The Prelude) the various nationalities he sees in the crowded streets. Most of all, he admires the "Negro Ladies in their white muslin gowns". A [high] estimate of 20,000 in a late-18th-century city with c.750,000 people gives a black population of just under 3 per cent. But non-white Londoners worked disproportionately in the capital's social and commercial hubs, in domestic service, pubs, shops and theatres. The numbers in a Covent Garden or Mayfair street might have seemed much higher.

Sarah Gadon as Elizabeth Murray and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Belle (David Appleby) Sarah Gadon as Elizabeth Murray and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Belle (David Appleby)

On the one hand, slavery and its future drove incessant discussions in coffee-houses, taverns, periodicals and parliament after the 1760s, when the abolition movement began to gather pace. On the other, thousands of black Londoners went about their business with little scrutiny or documentation. One problem for historians is that we often simply don't know someone's race until a special reason arises to mention it. In a lecture for the National Archives (available as a podcast), the family historian Dr Kathleen Chater – author of Untold Histories – points to the many black figures in Georgian art, in works by William Hogarth and others: "They're simply faces in the crowd. There's no big deal, there's no surprise. They don't live in separate communities, they don't live in ghettos." Take John Cranbrook, born in Rochester in 1754 and one of Dr Chater's database of 5,000 black Britons who lived here between Tudor times and the early 19th century. At the time of his baptism, we know that he's a "black boy". When John marries in the City, the register has no reason to mention his ethnicity – why should it? He becomes a greengrocer in Clapham and, on his death in 1796, someone else does specify his race.

Colour drifts in and out of view, often cropping up in court records almost by accident. When a merchant suffers a highway robbery on Hounslow Heath in 1780, we learn via a witness statement that his black servant, Tobias Pleasant, has worked for the victim for 32 years. Casanova's memoirs of his spell in London take a break from amorous pursuit to recall his valet, "my Negro Jarbe", who "spoke English, French and Italian with a facility". The words of these stray testimonies can leap across the centuries. White cites the case of a black prostitute, Esther Allingham, falsely accused of theft in 1782 by a client who wanted to scarper without paying. "I do not chuse to give my carcase up to you for nothing," she thundered at the toe-rag concerned. Esther was acquitted.

Since, however, many black Londoners worked in "service" occupations that brought them into contact with the rich and famous, their visibility could rise. Jerry White reports that they became ostentatious "symbols of wealth, status and imperial connections". Hence their ubiquity as flattering lackeys in Georgian society paintings, and the boundary-busting shock of Dido Belle's frank confidence in the joint portrait with her cousin (not her mistress).

These butlers, footmen, maids, musicians, publicans and shopkeepers did develop a sort of solidarity. White finds that "there was something like a black community based on kinship," expressed at parties, balls, baptisms and wakes, and that "much of this communal life was founded in the lively fellowship of domestic service, with its boundless capacity for scandal and mirth". Fleet Street had at least one pub with a mainly black clientele. When Ruth Crook died in Holborn in 1763, 28 black couples followed her funeral procession to St George's, Bloomsbury. Black Londoners filled the public galleries to hear Lord Mansfield deliver his verdicts on slavery, and celebrated with a ball the outcome of the Somersett case. When, during the trial, the pro-slaver counsel John Dunning said plaintively that "It is my misfortune to address an audience much the greater part of which, I apprehend, wish to find me in the wrong," you can imagine his nervous glance up at a sea of non-white faces.

For all this apparent ease and assurance, prejudice could still blight lives. The letters of Ignatius Sancho give us plenty of evidence. "Look round upon the miserable fate of almost all our unfortunate colour," he writes. "Superadded to ignorance – see slavery, and the contempt of those very wretches who roll in affluence from our labours. Superadded to this woeful catalogue – hear the ill-bred and heart-racking abuse of the foolish vulgar." Sancho, however, could give as good as he got from the "foolish vulgar" – with interest. His abolitionist friend William Stevenson recorded a confrontation with some braying toff in fashionable Spring Gardens. "Smoke Othello!" yelped the would-be wit. "Aye, Sir, such Othellos you meet with but once in a century," replied the famously well-upholstered literary grocer, clapping his hand upon his goodly round paunch. "Such Iagos as you, we meet with in every dirty passage. Proceed, sir!"

What became of the people who speak and act with such urbane confidence? Because (thanks to Lord Mansfield, among others) the law put up few bars, and everyday life fewer still, many simply married into the white artisan and trading classes of the capital. Dido Belle herself wed John Davinier in 1794, left Kenwood House, and bowed out of history. Within a couple of generations, much of non-white London – as a visible population – would just fade away.

So hundreds of thousands of Britons may descend from black Georgians – most of them unwittingly. And not only around London: Equiano settled in Cambridgeshire, his wife's home, and Francis Barber in Lichfield, Dr Johnson's birthplace. These black celebrities left legends, and families, but often not much more. Not only lives but works have often disappeared from view. For 30 years after 1799, Joseph Emidy – an African-born former slave and seafarer – was the star violinist and impresario in Falmouth, where he had quit his last ship, and then Truro. In Cornwall, they loved Emidy and all the fine music that he wrote. But not a note of it survives.

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