UWF archaeologist research connects Pensacola to new British film release, international history
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Over the past 20 years, University of West Florida archaeologist Margo Stringfield has shared the history and archaeology of Pensacola’s past with the public. Recently, one such story involving one of the first Englishmen to own property in Pensacola, British Naval Captain Sir John Lindsay, and a slave named Maria Belle proved to be a missing link that connects Pensacola to 18th century happenings on a broader world stage through the development of the British film, Belle.
Lindsay served as commander of the British Naval Forces in Pensacola from 1764 to 1765. Along with other high-ranking British officials and immigrants flowing into the new colony he was granted a town lot, located on the west end of present-day downtown Pensacola. Although he left Pensacola in 1765, Lindsay retained ownership of the property until late 1773, when documents show that he conveyed his lot in Pensacola to Maria Belle who is noted as being a “Negro woman” of Pensacola living in London at that time. Less than six months later, the lot conveyance was confirmed in Pensacola.
For Stringfield, this story was not only the focus of a master’s thesis; through ongoing research the story of Lindsay and Maria Belle continues to shed new light on Pensacola’s colonial community as a whole.
“Pensacola has one of the richest cultural heritages of any city in the United States,” Stringfield said. “We want to bring that heritage to the public. One of the goals we have at the UWF Archaeology Institute is to share with the public who we are, where we came from and provide a better understanding of the people who contributed to the making of our city, our state and our country. We also look for links between Pensacola and the world at large.
That goal became a reality when news of Belle, a recently released film that highlights the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, daughter of Lindsay and Maria Belle who was raised in London by her great uncle, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield of England, reached Stringfield. Although Belle touches only lightly on Dido’s mother and does not directly state a link to Pensacola, Stringfield said the visually splendid and thought-provoking film does raise awareness of a complex period of history on both sides of the Atlantic.
“At the beginning of the British occupation in Pensacola, we have a distinguished naval captain tasked with charting the northern Gulf Coast of England’s newly acquired colony,” she said. “We also have a slave who became a free woman of means and was part of a period of our city’s history that literally ended with a bang: the 1781 Battle of Pensacola. Inhabitants of Pensacola at the time were witnesses to a pivotal turning point in the American fight for independence. Meanwhile, in London, we have a daughter who is rightfully depicted as a young woman caught up in the dialogue over the abolition of slavery.”
The Maria Belle project is an excellent example of the Archaeology Institute’s interdisciplinary approach to research. Stringfield has worked with more than 30 UWF students, faculty, and staff since the early 1990s to construct the story of Lindsay, Maria Belle and their movements within the colonial community of Pensacola and beyond using British and Spanish primary resource materials. The archaeology of the colonial community is invaluable in telling the story.
With the release of Belle, Stringfield is hopeful that there will be growing interest in Pensacola’s history and archaeology, as well as increased awareness of the University’s efforts to uncover Northwest Florida’s past.
“UWF has been the driving force in bringing the history and archaeology of our area to the public. And, within the Division of Anthropology and Archaeology, we strive to offer students the opportunity to work on unique projects. From excavations on 16th century Spanish shipwrecks to British house lots, UWF is bringing the past to life.”