The Zong Massacre, the film Belle, and the Atlantic World in Eighteenth-Century British Law and on Twenty-First-Century Screens

The 2014 film Belle was inspired by a late eighteenth-century painting featuring two well dressed young women, one apparently black and one apparently white. Each of the historical figures depicted had spent part of her youth in the home and care of Britain's powerful Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, who was related to both. As Chief Justice, Mansfield also adjudicated important cases involving the slave trade. These included the Zong case, concerning slavers who murdered scores of slaves and thereafter sought insurance money to cover their financial losses. (The insurers balked; hence the case.) In the feature film Belle, screenwriter Misan Sagay and director Amma Asante re-create the lives of the women in the painting as well as the Zong court case. Participants in this seminar will explore the film and related material, considering Belle's depictions of gender, race, class, and slavery in the social and legal cultures of the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world. Through this discussion, the seminar also will broach broader issues regarding the multiple uses, limitations, and considerations of using film to teach and learn historical content and interpretation.