The life story of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, the African orphan girl who became Queen Victoria’s protégée.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta was originally named Omoba Aina when she drew breath for the first time in the city of Okeadon, West Africa (what is now Benin) during the reign of the Yoruba Empire. Bonetta would only enjoy five years of her childhood before tragedy became her new normal.
Bonetta had the misfortune of being a Black woman during the tail end of the transatlantic slave trade.
The practice had devastated her country and economic incentives for African warlords to take part in the vile trade of enslaved people turned Africa into a lawless and violent environment. Similar to the story of the warrior queen, Nzinga Mbande, Bonetta was born into a world of constant warfare where ethnic and cultural differences between groups of native peoples in West Africa fueled social division.
Bloody conflicts were frequent, and the battles often produced captives that fell into Africa’s pre-existing local slave trade, eventually circulating into the transatlantic slave trade system.
In 1847, tribal warfare managed to spread to Bonetta’s kingdom when the village of Okeadon fell into the hands of the most notorious slave trading warlord in West Africa during the 19th century: King Gezo of Dahomy. This invasion became known as the Okeadon War. Both of Bonetta’s parents – and likely her siblings as well – were killed in the massacre.
Gezo captured Bonetta instead of killing her for reasons that are still unclear, but she remained in his court until 1849 or 1850 when she was gifted to the British naval captain, Fredrick Forbes.
Forbes had been sent to West Africa on a diplomatic mission to undermine the slave trade by intercepting Spanish and French slave ships and convincing the local monarchs to stop their trade. It was customary during such diplomatic encounters for both parties to exchange gifts and among the gifts set to be given to Forbes was a “captive girl.”
Forbes was curious why a merciless warlord like Gezo would have held onto her for two years. He concluded that Bonetta must have been of high status, and with Gezo’s track record of sacrificing high status captives, Forbes feared if he did not take the captive girl she would not live very long.
Forbes accepted her as a gift on behalf of the queen, just like that she was swept away to England. Upon their arrival in Europe, Forbes had his new “gift” baptized under the name Sarah Forbes Bonetta, after himself and the name of his ship, Bonetta.
As a government official, Forbes had many connections in the highest of places. He immediately started drafting a proposal to Queen Victoria of England, where he explained that he had received a “gift” for the queen, describing Sarah as “an intelligent and good tempered girl about six or seven years of age.”
The queen agreed to take the young slave girl under her protection and managed to win her over with intelligence and kindness after just one visit with the queen. While still living with Forbes, she began to have regular visits with the queen at Windsor Castle starting in autumn of 1850.
The Victorian period where Bonetta found herself in was ripe with inspiration, subjectivity and artistic passion. Fresh off of England’s discovery of human ability to rational reasoning, the entire nation was in the middle of a cultural revolution.
It was marked by the idea of “species-level” differences between races. The concept of racial hierarchy within the family of humanity had continued after the outlawing of enslaved peoples and had a large impact on the years to come.
Theories of scientific racism during this time significantly affected Bonetta, so much so, that when she developed a cough a few months after she started visiting the queen, she was immediately sent back to Africa because of the widely held belief that the climate in England was damaging for African children.
Bonetta was sent to be off again, and it was decided that she live in one of the British territories on the African coast. In 1851, she left England and set course for her home country, she was enrolled into a Church Missionary Society in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
Although separated by sea, Queen Victoria continued to dote on her protégée, sending her gifts and books. Bonetta remained in Sierra Leone for four years but after becoming a missionary she, supposedly, wanted to return to England.
When Bonetta was back, she took up residence with the Schoen family, former missionaries in Africa. She moved once more after living with the Schoen family for six years and was sent, much to her dismay, to Brighton where she was introduced to British society.
By then, Bonetta was already well educated and intelligent in her own right but sadly because of widely held racists beliefs on intellectual inferiority of Black people, Bonetta’s accomplishments went ignored and her every move was scrutinized.
At 19 years old, she was martially matched with a 31-year-old merchant, James Davies, whose ancestors were freed from slavery and of Yoruba descent.
Bonetta was not in favor of marrying someone she didn’t’ care for.
“Others would say ‘He is a good man and though you don’t care about him now, will soon learn to love him.’ That, I believe, I never could do. I know that the generality of people would say he is rich & your marrying him would at once make you independent, and I say ‘Am I to barter my peace of mind for money?’ No – never!” – Written in a letter to Mrs. Schoen from Sarah Bonetta Forbes
The queen, however, thought it was a good match and the two were wed in August of 1862. Bonetta’s status as a protégée ensured that the wedding was to be an opulent affair. The “African Princess” was already attracting widespread curiosity that when the wedding occurred, crowds gathered around the church to witness the extravagant event. Press reported that there were 10 horse-drawn carriages, 16 bridesmaids and a party of “white ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with white gentlemen.”
Her betrothed’s business took place in Sierra Leone, so Bonetta returned to the African coast once more and later moved to Lagos, Nigeria. Their first-born daughter was named Victoria after her godmother, Queen Victoria and in 1867, Forbes’s daughter was christened by her namesake and gifted a gold cup, knife, fork, and spoon.
Bonetta had two more children, but by 1860 she contracted tuberculosis, which had no cure at the time. In 1889, she succumbed to her illness at the age of 37.
Bonetta’s first born was 17 at the time and had been visiting the queen when she received the tragic news. Along with many members of the court who mourned Bonetta’s death greatly, the queen remained in touch with her goddaughter throughout her life even paying for her to receive an education at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
Bonetta’s short life made a large impact because of her remarkable journey, since hers was far from the average life of a Black woman in Victorian England. Not only does her story provide insight into the racially held attitude of Queen Victoria but also the widespread social attitude during Victorian England.
Sarah Bonetta Forbes had gone from a coastal African princess to the Queen of England’s protégée and defied the beliefs of racial inferiority no matter how much her accomplishments were ignored.
In his journal, Captain Forbes described his experience with Sarah:
“Of her own history she was only a confused idea. Her parents were decapitated; her brother and sisters she knows not what their fate might have been. For her age supposed to be eight years. She is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and has a great talent for music. She has won the affections, with but few exceptions, of all who have known her, she is far in advance of any white child of her age, in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection.” – Captain Fredrick Forbes