How a Beautiful African Princess Became Queen Victoria’s Goddaughter
Sarah Forbes Bonetta led an adventurous life. Born as an African princess to the Yoruba people in 1843, her parents named her Omoba Aina. Her noble title saved her from the harsh conditions of enslavement. Nevertheless, King Gezo led his troops to capture her as a political prisoner of war; she was three years old at the time. Her parents became victims of the conflict, and she seemed destined to become a human sacrifice. During this time, Commander Forbes of the Royal Navy witnessed a ceremony called the “watering of the graves.
Then he saw the girl. She was so small, so still. The drums beat louder as they brought her toward the pit (Myers, 1999).
Commander Forbes felt compelled to protest the killing of such a young child. His men agreed, but he had to tread lightly. Forbes did not have the authority to enter into war with the Dahomey people. Tensions rose, and then the King gave Forbes a message through a translator. She would become a diplomatic gift for Queen Victoria.
It was announced that the killing of the adults would continue. The girl, however, would be given to Commander Forbes’ Queen. She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the whites(Myers, 1999).
Before the ceremony, the Dahomey warriors kept Sarah captive for two years. During this time, she witnessed more violence than any child should. By age five, her misfortune was terrible, but it was short-lived. Sarah seemed destined to live a better life; her adventure began the day Forbes’ advocacy liberated her from that wicker basket.
A diplomatic gift
In 1833, the British people abolished slavery. After renouncing the practice, they sent the Royal Navy to attempt to end the slave trade in Africa — an arduous task. That is how Commander Forbes found himself on the shores of West Africa. Forbes became a member of the Royal Navy at age fourteen and saw the harmful impact of the slave trade. He tried to persuade King Gezo to end slavery within his nation but failed. As the leader of the Damone people, he sold members of enemy tribes to European conquerors. Even though Britain was no longer shopping, many nations still sought African slaves.
While Sarah became a gift for Queen Victoria, Sarah Forbes Bonetta did not spend one day as a slave. Commander Forbes took her under his wing, offering her kindness and protection. The young girl felt terrified throughout the ordeal. Even after King Gezo and Commander Forbes assured her that no one would harm her, she did not entirely believe them. Just moments prior, she was heading for the grave. Still, Sarah left Africa under the care of Forbes and the Royal Navy. Because she was a gift for Queen Victoria, no one would dare harm a hair on her head.
How she became Sarah Forbes Bonetta
Forbes became a father figure for Sarah, who lost her parents at a young age. Before sailing back to Britain in 1850, Forbes took Sarah to missionaries. They baptized her; Forbes named her Sarah Forbes Bonetta. He made his last name her middle name, signifying her acceptance into his family. Her last name became the name of the ship she traveled on — Bonetta. The vessel of her liberty became a name she carried with her throughout her life.
On the way to Britain, Sarah felt a culture shock. British food and clothing were so different. On the voyage, she wore a white dress, gifted by missionaries. Her intelligence began to shine. She quickly learned the English language. Initially, she learned from interacting with the Royal Navy. The sailors treated her with kindness, befitting a royal guest. Forbes often heard her singing songs.
Commander Forbes would hear her softly singing to herself. He wondered if the songs were ones she had learned among her own people or ones she composed herself (Myers, 1999).
Forbes decided to raise her alongside his four children. Throughout her life, she continued to view him as a paternal figure who advocated for her.
Her relationship with Queen Victoria
The British people crowned Queen Victoria at Westminster Abbey in 1838. She was 19 years old at the time and known to embody the values of this era. When she met Sarah Forbes Bonetta, she was still a young Queen and eagerly listened to Forbes as he told her how he came across the little African princess. Queen Victoria was interested to learn about Sarah’s African royal lineage. Forbes explained that the markings on her face indicated her Egbado identity.
Those marks, lines cut into her face as an infant showing that she was a princess had saved her from slavery but had brought her to this dreadful place (Myers, 1999).
The African princess charmed Queen Victoria. She invited her to Westminster Abbey on numerous occasions. The Queen asked her to retell as much of her childhood experiences as she could remember. She listened as Sarah spoke about her experiences.
She was made to witness the other human victims being dragged out for sacrifice and knew that one day would be her turn (Myers, 1999).
The Queen had to decide what she would do with this girl, sent to her as a gift. She did not want to hold Sarah against her will; instead, she offered her safety and care. Queen Victoria decided that Forbes could maintain custody of Sarah, but she would become her godmother.
It turns out, the Queen made an excellent godmother, paying for her education, food, clothing, and housing. Throughout her time in Britain, Sarah spent lots of time visiting the palace. She became a celebrity. Everyone wanted to see or meet the little princess who won the Queen’s heart.
Back to Africa
One day, Queen Victoria learned that Sarah fell ill. They employed the best doctors available to help her. However, none of the traditional methods worked. The Queen thought Sarah’s illness was related to her African heritage. She theorized that the cold European weather was too harsh for African children. Even though her assumption was wrong, it came from a compassionate place. Queen Victoria did what she felt was right for Sarah’s health. She gave orders to send the little princess back to West Africa, promising to keep her under the Crown’s protection.
Like any good godmother, the Queen wanted to ensure that Sarah was safe. She initially assigned Commander Forbes to return to West Africa alongside her. He was supposed to continue his previous mission of diminishing the slave trade. Sadly, he grew ill and died before making the journey. Sarah mourned him as a second father, remembering his kindness. She even asked to be buried at sea, like him. When she left Britain, her adoptive family and royals wished her a tearful farewell with many hugs.
Sarah arrived in Sierra Leone, and people were well aware of her relationship with the Queen. Still, the social climate was thick with racism. Many white people in West Africa believed themselves superior to Africans. The disrespect felt palatable, causing her much distress.
The missionaries often had a low regard for the Africans. They considered the native religions’ primitive’ and their writings often referred to Blacks as savages (Myers, 1999).
With Forbes gone and Queen Victoria far away, she learned about the experiences of other African children. While Sarah gave up her African traditions because of war, capture, and baptism, these children had different experiences. They still had their families, loved their cultures and communities. Missionaries made them choose between their educational opportunities and traditions.
For African children, attending the missionary schools meant giving up most of their culture (Myers, 1999).
Sarah continued to do well in her studies. She learned to speak French fluently and lived in private quarters more lavish than girls her same age. The Queen still fitted the bill for all of her needs, and everyone knew that Sarah held a special place in the Queen’s heart. She became a local celebrity in Sierra Leon. Many people wanted to meet her, curious about why the Queen took such a particular liking to her. To celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday, Sarah once held a tea party with local well-to-do and royal children. They sung songs, ate food, and rejoiced. Like Sarah’s other expenses, the Queen paid for the affair.
The Queen continued to send gifts of games and toys to Sarah. She also sent children’s books, which Sarah read eagerly (Myers, 1999).
Throughout her life, Commander Forbes and Queen Victoria often praised Sarah’s intellect. Forbes once wrote that her mental acuity exceeds white children of the same age. While this was his opinion, it represented his deep admiration. Sarah had an extraordinary mind, and everyone around her acknowledged that. She continued to have close ties with other royal children. In particular, she called the Prince of Wales “Bertie.” Calling royal children nicknames showed their close relationship.
While in Sierra Leone, Sarah heard some troubling news. King Gezo maintained control in nearby Abeokuta. She remembered him from her youth — the man who sentenced and then pardoned her from death. Even though he was some distance away, this made her feel uncomfortable. However, she remained under the Queen’s protection throughout her life and never met the King again.
Back to England, then back to Africa again
Queen Victoria sent a letter requesting her presence in Britain. Sarah happily returned, once again destined to spend more time at Westminster. When she arrived, things were different. Mrs Forbes, recently widowed, moved closer to her family in Scotland. So, instead of staying with her former adoptive family, Sarah lived with the Schoen’s in Gillingham. Mrs Forbes sent letters, approving of the Schoen family. The meetings with Queen Victoria continued.
The princess met her future husband, James Pinson Labulo Davies when he was 31 years old. As a member of the Church Missionary Society, he traveled from Britain to West Africa. While she was initially hesitant, Sarah accepted his proposal, and the Queen approved. Queen Victoria welcomed him as her god-son in law, a title engraved on his tombstone. Her most famous pictures come from her wedding day attire. She married Davies in August of 1862.
Upon marrying Davies, Sarah did not get to choose where she would live. He was a prominent businessman in West Africa, and after marrying, they soon returned. She began to work at the Female Institute as a teacher. However, the conditions in Africa were unlike her bubble in Britain. Ostracized because of her relative power and race, many women felt jealous. After all, Sarah was the goddaughter of a powerful Queen and a prominent local business man’s wife. Micro-aggressions were a regular occurrence.
The English women who taught at the Female Institute in Freetown often considered themselves culturally superior to the Africans (Myers, 1999).
Sarah Forbes Bonetta Davies continued to send letters, corresponding with Queen Victoria and royal children. She never let the disdain of others harm her cheerful spirit. In her correspondence, she told the Queen that marriage made her happy. Throughout their marriage, they had three children together. Sarah named her first child after her godmother — Victoria Davies. Queen Victoria made Sarah’s daughter her goddaughter, signifying the importance of their bond.
She lived happily until contracting a troublesome case of tuberculosis, which they referred to as consumption during the Victorian era. When her daughter, Victoria, was on the way to visit the Queen, she passed away in Madeira. While she was not buried at sea as she hoped, she was sent off in a funeral befitting the goddaughter of a Queen. After her passing, the Queen continued to see Victoria, Sarah’s daughter, regularly.
Quite recently the Bishop of Lagos escorted Mrs Randle, an African lady, and her two little children, by Royal command, to Windsor Castle, where Her Majesty received the visitors with the utmost cordiality, and gave presents to the negro children, whom she kissed. The Queen has long taken the warmest interest in this West African family (Royal Collection Trust, 1900)
THE GLOBE, AUGUST 23 1900
Sarah Forbes Bonetta lives on through art
Stories about free Black people living in the Victorian era continue to surface. Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s story is an important one to keep alive — it gives perspective on the period directly after the slave trade ended. Artists use their crafts to bring her story to life. Cynthia Erivo will produce and star in a film about the gifted African princess. Fans can expect the release of this film in 2021.
The filmmakers are planning for the biopic to be a celebration of Bonetta as a strategic, determined heroine who found a way to embrace her Black-ness, her African-ness and to ultimately find love, forging a path for herself that honoured both her heritage and her upbringing (Wiseman, 2020).
Myer’s 1999 book, At her majesty’s request: An African princess in Victorian England, provides invaluable insight into Sarah’s life. Inside, readers will find intimate correspondence between Sarah and her Godmother, the Queen. The book carefully lays out her life’s details.
Ms Bonetta’s story was the subject of a play released at the start of the year called The Gift, (BBC, 2020).
In addition to film and prose, visual artists also ensured Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s story lives on in a new generation. Artist Hanna Uzor created a painting that depicted Sarah in her wedding dress. This stunning portrait honors her memory. The artwork remains on display at the Osborne House.
Queen Victoria and Sarah Forbes Bonetta had a special relationship
Sarah’s life was quite adventurous. With her high intellect and a little luck, she became the goddaughter of mighty Queen Victoria. Their relationship derived from a policy change a generation prior. Had slavery remained prominent in Britain during the era, they may never have met. Commander Forbes may never have intervened if the policy was different.
Sarah Forbes, born Omoba Aina, was a brilliant, kind, and brave Black woman. Queen Victoria’s relationship with the beautiful African princess gives insight into her personality. While often portrayed as a stoic woman with strict ideas about behaviors, my research leads me to consider Queen Victoria as a kind, sympathetic woman, at least when it came to her goddaughter.
Curated Articles about Race, Equality, Women, and History:
BBC (Ed.). (2020, October 07). Sarah Forbes Bonetta: Portrait of Queen Victoria’s goddaughter on show. Retrieved December 27, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-hampshire-54445289
Harrison, G. (2018, May 19). Who was Sara Forbes Bonetta? The African princess who became Queen Victoria’s goddaughter. Retrieved December 23, 2020, from https://www.thesun.co.uk/tvandshowbiz/5195772/sara-forbes-bonetta-african-princess-queen-victoria-goddaughter/
Myers, W. D. (1999). At her majesty’s request: An African princess in Victorian England. New York, New York: Scholastic Press. Retrieved December 24, 2020, from https://archive.org/details/athermajestysreq0000myer. — Primary Source
Royal Collection Trust (Ed.). (, 1900). RCIN 2915313 — Mrs Victoria Randle with her two children. Retrieved December 27, 2020, from https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/trails/black-and-asian-history-and-victorian-britain/mrs-victoria-randle-with-her
Wiseman, A. (2020, December 03). ‘Harriet’ Actress Cynthia Erivo To Star In & Produce Story Of Princess “Gifted” To Queen Victoria; BBC Film, Benedict Cumberbatch’s SunnyMarch & So So Producing. Retrieved December 27, 2020, from https://deadline.com/2020/12/cynthia-erivo-sarah-forbes-bonetta-queen-victoria-benedict-cumberbatch-bbc-film-1234639298/