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
"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 Award
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 Dido."
Adds Damian Jones: "Tom just gets better with every film. He brings majesty and authority."
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 family."
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 45,000
British slaves, when Dido was only 7. (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," observes Wilkinson.
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 makes."
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