Lord Mansfield and the Zong Ship Trial
Standing between Dido Belle and what she wants - both in love and in the
changing of the laws that support slavery - is the man who raised her: her great
uncle Lord Mansfield, a hugely influential figure right at the peak of the
battle against the British slave trade. On the one hand, he is a man devoted to
law, order and preserving the British state. But on the other, he is a loving
man with a deeply human impulse to treat Dido as he would any family - even if
that means controlling who she marries.
"Lord Mansfield is a fascinating character because he really straddles the point
of change that is happening at the time we come into this story," says Amma
Asante. "He is a man of conditioning, a man who definitely feels that the world
is a better world if rules are in place. But he is also a man of progress, who
is able to look forward when many of his peers cannot."
Asante found it a wonderful historical surprise that Mansfield treated Dido as
he did. "He didn't choose to make Dido a servant, he didn't choose to hide her -
he chose to make her a central part of the family, to enshrine her in the
painting that still exists today," notes Asante. "There aren't the words for me
to express that. I'm in awe of the level of courage that must have taken,"
To portray this formidable man, the filmmakers turned to two-time Academy AwardÂ®
nominee Tom Wilkinson (MICHAEL CLAYTON, IN THE BEDROOM), known for his ability
to illuminate extraordinary historical characters. Says Asante, "Lord Mansfield
had to have gravitas - but he also had to have real warmth and empathy. Tom
brings all that to his performance, and you really believe his relationship with
Adds Damian Jones: "Tom just gets better with every film. He brings majesty and
Wilkinson was taken right away with the prospect of playing a man known as much
for his mind and morals as his class standing. "Lord Mansfield was an
interesting man, in the sense that he didn't come from the upper class. He was
Scottish, certainly not from the aristocracy, and he worked his way up through
the ranks by virtue of his academic and legal brilliance," says Wilkinson.
He was also drawn to Lord Mansfield as an unusually devoted family man in a time
when successful patriarchs often ignored their families. "I like the fact that
Lord Mansfield has an emotional, loving relationship with his family," he says,
"including his wife. That might sound surprising, but he didn't have to - this
was an age where marriages were often arranged at certain levels of society.
That wasn't the case with Mansfield; he truly loved his wife and his entire
At the very same moment that Dido is preparing to make her debut in society,
Lord Mansfield becomes involved in a court case that will alter the course of
history, and Dido's search for her identity. The actual court case began with
what became known to the world as the Zong Massacre, a mass homicide in which
142 African slaves were thrown overboard to their deaths by the crew of the
Liverpool-owned slave ship Zong. When the ship's insurer refused to pay 30
pounds each for the dead slaves (then considered under the law solely as
property), the owners took the insurer to court.
The case became a powder keg, with abolitionists on the one side seeing it as a
vital opportunity to deal a death knell to commercial slave trading, and
traditionalists on the other arguing that the case could devastate Britain's
entire economy and deprive many of their livelihoods.
Mansfield was already considered by some to be on abolitionists' side,
especially since he had previously aired anti-slavery views in the famous
Somersett case of 1772, which freed thousands of British slaves, when Dido was
only 11. (Mansfield said then: "The state of slavery is of such a nature that it
is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political.")
Still, Mansfield was a legal moderate, and an independent thinker who many felt
could have ruled either way. "He did not want to be influenced one way or
another," observes Wilkinson. "For a long time in the movie, it looks like he
might rule in favor of the slave ship owners."
It was only when evidence came out of the malnutrition, lack of drinking water
and atrocities that swept through the Zong before the massacre that Mansfield
was visibly swayed. His decision in favor of the insurers, though tempered by a
refusal to hold the captain liable for murder, was a major blow to slave
traders. Buoyed by the decision, the abolition movement expanded, resulting in
the official cessation of the British slave trade in 1807. (Slavery itself was
not outlawed until 1833.)
Did Dido Belle influence Lord Mansfield's thinking? That question weighed on
Asante. "Every day of filming," she says, "it was going through my head. It's
very difficult to know for certain, but I think it would be disingenuous to
believe that her presence in the house didn't have some impact on him. How much?
I can't say. I like to think that Lord Mansfield would have done the right thing
anyway. But it certainly makes for a fascinating story to think that his love
for this child opened his eyes, or helped focus him a little more clearly on the
plight of those who drowned."
Wilkinson believes that Lord Mansfield struggled to balance a case that he knew
could have profound economic as well as moral consequences. "On the one hand,
there's Dido, whom he loves and who was born of a slave mother and in some way
represents the slaves who were drowned by the owners of the slave ship. On the
other hand - if he stands up and has the courage to say, 'this is wrong,' he
knows this decision could destroy the foundation of people's livelihoods if he
rules against the slave owners, so he truly struggles with that decision,"
He also struggles with how to be a good father, especially when Dido's choice in
love clashes with the pre-conceived vision he had for her future. "As a father
to Dido, Lord Mansfield must do the one thing all fathers find hardest to do
when it comes to their daughters and that is to let go," observes Asante. "Let
her go, let her fly, and still love her, regardless of the decisions that she
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