Sarah Forbes Bonetta isn’t exactly a household name – I only first heard of her myself a few days ago – but the story of her life is so remarkable that it sounds like a fairytale.
Sarah was born in 1843 as a West-African Egbado princess of the Yoruba people in modern-day Nigeria. In 1848, the local King of Dahomey took her prisoner during a ‘slave-hunt’ in her village during which her parents were killed. She was only spared execution because she was the daughter of a tribe chief.
The slave trade had been abolished across the British Empire in 1807, and the practice itself prohibited in 1833, but for decades after, British officials used diplomacy to try and persuade African leaders, to whom the trade was beneficial, to abandon it once and for all. That’s where Sarah comes in.
In 1850, Frederick Forbes, a captain in the British West Africa Squadron, visited Sarah’s homeland, and while there, exchanged diplomatic gifts with local leaders. Ironically, given the abolition of the slave trade more than four decades before, Forbes received a gift of a six-year-old ‘captive’ girl to be given to the Queen – Sarah. As Forbes wrote at the time, ‘she would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.’ He accepted the ‘gift’, despite it having been his life’s work to quash the slave trade, and set sail for England with Sarah on board.
To anglicise her, she was given the surname Forbes Bonetta – Forbes after the captain, and Bonetta after his ship, the HMS Bonetta. Soon after she arrived, Sarah was presented to Queen Victoria, after which her majesty wrote in her private journal that the girl was ‘sharp and intelligent, and speaks English’. It’s a shame we’ll never know what little Sarah was thinking when she met the most powerful woman in the world for the first time.
Victoria took a liking to Sarah, and thenceforth became her protector – almost like an adoptive mother – funding her education, wardrobe and housing to turn her into a proper English gentlewoman. It’s such a surreal story – you couldn’t write it.
While this unbelievable treatment almost certainly offered Sarah a better life than she would have had as an orphan in colonial Africa (she may have been killed if Forbes had not accepted her), she was ultimately part of a rather patronising social experiment. She was used to demonstrate that under British guidance, native Africans could become Christianised and civilised (as per the buzzword of the period) – she was designed to be a living justification of colonialism.
Nevertheless, because of the monarch’s investment and endorsement, Sarah was able to take her place as an accomplished woman in Victorian high society – one of the only black women to be able to do so. As a teenager, she became a regular visitor to Windsor Castle, and became close friends with Victoria’s daughter, Princess Alice. She wowed the court with her sophistication and advanced intellect, often outshining her tutors with her knowledge of literature, art and music. Victoria herself described her as a ‘perfect genius’.
When she was 18, Sarah got engaged to James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy 31-year-old Yoruba businessman and philanthropist who had also been accepted by British society despite his parents being freed slaves. They married in Brighton in 1862, with ten carriages carrying ‘White ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with White gentlemen’. Apparently, so many people attended her wedding that the church was initially too packed for her to get through the door.
The couple settled in Lagos, Nigeria, and had their first of three children shortly after. They were granted permission by the Queen to name their daughter Victoria Davies, and her namesake became her Godmother. The Queen still cherished Victoria after her mother’s death, granting her an annuity and allowing her to continue to visit the royal household throughout her reign.
During her life, Sarah had a lingering cough which began when she moved from the African climate to England’s, and she died of tuberculosis in 1880. Almost 150 years later, a portrait of her is to be unveiled at the Queen’s Isle of Wight residence, Osborne House, as part of an English Heritage plan to introduce more portrayals of ‘overlooked’ black figures to their properties. There are hopes that the portrait, painted by black artist Hannah Uzor, will encourage more people to learn about the black Britons throughout history who are often neglected.
While it’s true that Sarah’s case is unprecedented, and she was probably treated as an exotic marvel, almost like a circus creature, during her time at Queen Victoria’s court, it doesn’t make her story any less remarkable.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta was brought to England after being sold into slavery. After meeting Queen Victoria as a young child, Bonetta's life was transformed by the Queen's willingness to draw her into her circle and take charge of her education and welfare.
— English Heritage (@EnglishHeritage) October 7, 2020