Sarah Forbes Bonetta was raised in Victorian High Society and embraced by Queen Victoria’s family. Born a princess in Africa, her parents were killed when she was a child. Her people were slaughtered or sold into slavery by King Gezo, a neighboring African King.
In a remarkable turn of fate, she was rescued and taken to England. Many of the details of her life remain unclear. Some are lost to history. But by all accounts, she was a highly intelligent and gifted child who enchanted Queen Victoria.
Following are TEN dramatic events from the life of Sarah Forbes Bonetta.
Princess Omobo Aina Was Captured By King Ghezo of Dahomey In 1848
Omobo Aina (Sarah or Sara Forbes Bonetta) was born in 1843 into the Egbado tribe of the Yoruba people of West Africa. Many historians believe that her parents were royalty and that she was a Princess. That chapter of her life ended in 1848 (at age 4 or 5) when King Gezo (or Ghezo) of Dahomey invaded her tribe.
According to the Royal Collection Trust, Gezo captured the city of Okeadon, killing many of the inhabitants, including Aina’s parents. Survivors were led into slavery.
“While her family were killed in the war, as the daughter of an African chief, Sarah was kept in captivity as a state prisoner, either to be presented to an important visitor, or to be sacrificed at the death of a minister or official to become his attendant in the next world.”
King Gezo of Dahomey Profited From The Slave Trade
King Gezo was a commanding figure in West Africa in the supply of people into the transatlantic slave trade. Slavery was his main source of revenue and proof of domination.
Ghezo came into power in 1818 in a coup aided by the Brazilian slave trader Felix de Sousa. He became a ruling trader until 1858 when Britain pressured him to end the slave trade. In exchange the British offered to help him build an alternative industry palm oil.
Many societies in Africa with kings and hierarchical forms of government traditionally kept slaves. But these were mostly used for domestic purposes. They were an indication of power and wealth and not used for commercial gain.
According to BBC Worldservice, in the early 18th century, Kings of Dahomey (known today as Benin) waged brutal war on their neighbors that resulted in the capture of 10,000 people. In 1750, King Tegbesu made an estimated £250,000 a year selling people into slavery. In the 1840s, King Gezo said he would do anything the British wanted him to do apart from giving up slave trade:
“The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth…the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery…”
Britain Abolished Slavery in 1833
For many years Britain had played a central role in the transatlantic slave trade. In 1833 Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery and gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom.
Peter Crowhurst, author and editor of British Empire 1815-1914 writes:
“The process of freeing the 768,000 slaves in the British Empire lasted for four years until 1 August 1838. Abolition of slavery marked a new phase in the history of the empire and marked the end of an empire, based on slaves and located in the Americas. The empire of Victoria’s reign was based in the eastern hemisphere and had a moral element to it.”
Victoria became Queen in 1837 at a time when the slaves of the British were being given their freedom.
Captain Frederick Forbes was a crucial figure in the diplomatic missions to cease trading in humans. He was a well-respected British naval captain in the West Africa Squadron (WAS). His mission was to intercept French and Spanish slave ships and to use diplomacy to dissuade African leaders from engaging in the trade of human beings.
Frederick Forbes Engineered A Remarkable Twist of Fate
Omobo Aina’s fate changed when British Captain Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy arrived in Dahomey. In his his 1851 book Dahomey and the Dahomans; being the journals of two missions to the king of Dahomey, and residence at his capital, in the year 1849 and 1850 Forbes describes Dahomey and the business of the slave trade in vivid detail.
Forbes met the King Gezo who he described as “about forty-eight years of age, good-looking…his appearance commanding, and his countenance intellectual, though stern in the extreme. That he is proud there can be no doubt, for he treads the earth as if it were honored by its burden.”
Forbes and Gezo exchanged gifts. At one point Forbes saw the “captive girl.”
The Royal Crown Trust writes:
“While there, he asked the King for the little girl as a present, whether for himself or on behalf of the Queen is not clear. The request was granted and the child was brought to England, being given the names of Forbes Bonetta, after the Captain and the ship.”
Although adamantly opposed to slavery, Forbes accepted the child as a gift because of the likely jeopardy she faced. Forbes wrote in his journals:
“The Dahomans attacked at midnight. Although there was no resistance, all the aged were decapitated on the spot, to the amount of thousands, and the strength and youth of the city sold into slavery.”
Leaving her behind would mean he would sign “her death-warrant.”
Aina impressed Forbes with her intelligence, charm and talent. He called her “a perfect genius,” and baptized her Sarah Forbes Bonetta after himself and his ship, the HMS Bonetta. He wrote that Sarah became ‘a general favourite’ with the crew. On their journey back to England she learned to speak English.
“I have only to add a few particulars about my extraordinary present ‘the African Child’ – one of the captives of this dreadful slave-hunt was this interesting girl. It is usual to reserve the best born for the high behest of royalty and the immolation on the tombs of the decease nobility. For one of these ends she has been detained at court for two years, proving, by her not having been sold to slave dealers, that she was of good family. She is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and has a great talent for music. She has won the affections, but with 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.”
Sarah Forbes Bonetta Began Her New Life In England In 1850
Sarah lived at first with Captain Forbes’s family. On November 9, 1850 she visited Windsor Castle where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert received her. The Queen was so impressed that she wrote about Sarah in her journals. She treated Sarah as her goddaughter, welcoming her into the family and funding her education.
The Royal Collection Trust writes:
“Growing up, Sarah spent a lot of time visiting Queen Victoria and their household at Windsor Castle and was close friends with her daughter Princess Alice. Queen Victoria was impressed with Sarah’s natural regal manner and her academic abilities and knowledge of literature, art and music.”
Sarah Forbes Bonetta Returned To Africa In 1851
Captain Forbes died in 1851 when Sarah was 7 or 8. She had developed a chronic cough. It was a common belief that Britain’s cold climate was bad for Africans. Sarah’s caregivers including Queen Victoria agreed and sent her to the Church Missionary Society (CMS) school for girls and young women in Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was developed in 1849 as a training ground for missionaries.
The school promoted English culture as the proper path to a righteous life. Students were forbidden to wear indigenous clothing or to speak their native language.
Sarah was a model student but she was deeply unhappy. Queen Victoria agreed that Sarah should return to England.
Sarah Returned To England In 1855
Sarah lived with longtime missionaries, the Reverend Frederick Scheon and his wife, about 35 miles East of London. Sarah got along well with the family. Annie Schoen later wrote an article for The Church Missionary Gleaner titled Queen Victoria’s African Protégé.
“In 1855 she was brought to England again, at the direction of the Queen, and placed under the care of my parents, the Rev. J. F. and Mrs. Schon at Chatham. It then became my privilege and pleasant duty to be her daily teacher in her English and French studies, while she learned German from my father.
She was very bright and clever, fond of study, and had a great talent for music, and soon became as accomplished as any English girl of her age. Her disposition was extremely lively. On her first coming to us she was so full of fun and mischief that one was almost reminded of “Topsy,” which name, indeed, she sometimes called herself. She was very affectionate and warm-hearted and seemed to quite feel herself to be one of our family, calling my parents, “papa” and “mamma.””
During these years, Queen Victoria remained close to Sarah. For Christmas she would go to Windsor or Osborne to stay with the family of one of the officers of Her Majesty’s Household. The Queen frequently sent for Sarah for private visits. Victoria gave her many gifts including a gold watch, a turquoise ring and a gold bracelet engraved with the words: “From Queen Victoria to Sarah Forbes Bonetta.”
Sarah Forbes Bonetta became part of Queen Victoria’s family. When Princess Alice married, the Queen sent Sarah an ensemble to wear to the festivities.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta Married In 1862
Despite her education and life in high social circles, Sarah was expected to live the destiny that was chosen for her. Like most young women of the Victorian Era she was expected to marry a suitable partner at a respectable age.
According to BrightonMuseums,
“In a very modern way, Sarah had a career, training as a teacher so that was one thing she enjoyed. But the Queen made sure she understood that she must marry in order to be maintained in the manner in which she was accustomed.”
The partner determined to be suitable for her was Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy Yoruba businessman. But Sarah was not attracted to him, and certainly did not love him.
“Of course she had to marry someone who was African like her. Sarah refused and was sent to live in Brighton, with two elderly ladies whose house she described as a “desolate little pig sty”. Unhappy with the situation, Sarah felt she had not choice but to accept the offer.” (BrightonMuseums)
Sarah was married in St, Nicholas Church in Brighton in August of 1862. The wedding party included sixteen bridesmaids and ten carriages. A series of cartes de visites photographs were taken of Sarah in her opulent wedding dress with he new husband. (LINK) In all of the photos, she looks directly into the camera with haunting eyes that seem to say she was returned to a life in captivity.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s Firstborn Was Named After Queen Victoria In 1863
Following their wedding, the couple lived briefly in Brighton’s Seven Dials. They then moved to Sierra Leone, and then to Lagos. Their first child was born in 1863.
With permission, they named her after Queen Victoria, who became her godmother. The Queen gave her a gold cup, knife, fork, and spoon engraved: “To Victoria Davies, from her godmother, Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, 1863.”
Victoria was followed by Arthur Davies in 1871 and Stella Davies in 1873.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta Died In 1880
Sarah died of Tuberculosis on August 15, 1880 on Madeira Island. She was just 37 years old.
Queen Victoria gave a generous annuity to her goddaughter, Victoria who continued to visit the royal household throughout her life.
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