THE AFRICAN PRINCESS: SARAH FORBES BONETTA
Sarah Forbes Bonetta (originally named Aina) was a princess of the Egbado clan of the Yoruba people. She is best known as being the god-daughter of Queen Victoria of Great Britain. However, the charmed life which she came to live had very tragic origins. Sarah was born in 1843 in what is now the southwest of Nigeria to royal parents whose name are unknown, they were killed in a raid as well as her siblings.
Sarah ended up being a slave to King Gezo of Dahomey the most notorious slave trading monarch in West Africa in the early 19th century. For reasons unknown she was not killed but remained in his court until 1849 when British Commander Frederick Forbes’s landed the HMS Bonetta in Dahomey to persuade Gezo to give up slave raiding and trading. Forbes noticed the young girl and bargained for her life. He persuaded King Gezo to “give” her to Queen Victoria, saying “She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.” Forbes wrote that “She is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and has great talent for music… She is far in advance of any white child of her age in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection…”
Sarah Forbes Bonetta was taken to Great Britain and met Queen Victoria on November 9th, 1850 at Windsor Castle. The Queen was impressed by her intellect and entrusted her care to the Schoen family in Palm Cottage, Gillingham when Forbes died early in 1851. The Queen declared Sarah her goddaughter and paid her tutorial expenses. Young Sarah became a regular visitor to Windsor Castle. In January 1862, 19-year-old Bonetta was a guest at the wedding of the Princess Royal Victoria, the eldest child of the Queen. In August of that year Bonetta herself was given permission by Queen Victoria to marry Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a 31-year-old wealthy Yoruba businessman from Sierra Leone. The couple married in an elaborate wedding at St. Nicholas Church in Brighton, England. Sarah arrived at the ceremony in an entourage that included ten carriages. The couple lived in Bristol, England briefly before returning to Sierra Leone.
While Davies continued his work, Bonetta began teaching in a Freetown school. Shortly after the marriage, she gave birth to a girl and was given permission by the Queen to name her Victoria. The Queen also became young Victoria’s godmother. In 1867 Sarah and her daughter visited the Queen again. For Sarah this would be her last visit. Sarah had suffered a serious cough right from when she was a teenager which continued until she was eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis. Bonetta had two more children but died in 1880 at the age of 37. Queen Victoria continued to provide for Sarah’s daughter. She supported young Victoria’s education and gave her an annuity. Young Victoria continued to visit the royal household for the rest of her life. Many of the Bonetta-Davis descendants live in and around Lagos, Nigeria
-Author: Chidinma Chukwuma
Chidinma is a second year law student of the University of Sheffield.