"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, January 9, 2017

An "African Princess" at Queen Victoria's Court

Portrait of Sarah as a child, Octavious Oakley

One of my favorite opening lines in all of literature comes from the preface to Ulysses S. Grant's memoirs: "'Man proposes and God disposes.' There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice." We have "free will" in the sense that we can choose what we make of these circumstances, for good or ill, but the circumstances themselves are largely out of our control. Life is a series of unexpected twists and turns that usually leave us as helplessly buffeted as so many autumn leaves in the wind. It is not a good world for anyone who dislikes surprises.

One sterling example of the strange vagaries of fate is the life of one 19th century African girl. Her birth name was "Aina," but she has come down to history as "Sarah Forbes Bonetta."

Aina was born in what is now Nigeria circa 1843. All we know about her family is that in 1848 her parents and siblings were killed in a raid carried out by forces of the Dahomian King Gezo. Little Aina, for unknown reasons, was spared and held as a captive in the Dahomian palace.

So far, Aina's life could be called unfortunate, but hardly remarkable. It was in 1850 that her life took its great unexpected turn. Frederick Forbes, captain of the naval ship HMS Bonetta, was sent to the Dahomian kingdom to conduct negotiations on behalf of Queen Victoria. King Gezo had been a major partner with Britain in that country's now-abolished slave trade, and Forbes was commissioned to persuade Gezo to give up that now-abhorred practice. It can probably be seen as a measure of Forbes' success that the king responded by giving Aina as a gift to the Englishman, as if she was just another trinket. She was, in Forbes' words, "a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites."

Forbes had his new charge baptized, naming her after both himself and his ship. Forbes did not regret his "gift," as he was very favorably impressed with the girl's dignified, amiable bearing and sharp intelligence--qualities that are strikingly evident in her photographs. The captain wrote admiringly, "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…”  After arriving in England in November 1850, the child was presented to the queen. Like Forbes, Victoria was struck by the little foreigner's bright, winning ways, which led her to agree to sponsor Sarah's education. The girl officially became part of the royal household, although she actually went to live in Gillingham, with the family of a famed missionary, the Reverend James Schoen.

It was the era when the concept of "Christianizing" Africa was very much in vogue. Many native Africans were enlisted as missionaries to their native land, with the goal of educating their countrymen on the benefits of Christianity and publicizing the horrors of the slave trade. Sarah's intelligence, character, and charm marked her as an obvious candidate for this role. It was decided that once she completed her basic education, Sarah should be sent to a missionary school in Sierra Leone. The girl did very well in her studies, but was lonely in Sierra Leone, and missed England, the only home she could remember. When the queen learned of her unhappiness, she arranged for Sarah to return in 1855. Sarah (or "Sally," as the queen called her,) became a well-known figure in England, where the former war orphan was fancifully seen as an exotic "African princess." She regularly visited Windsor Castle, and even attended the wedding of the queen's daughter Alice. She earned the affection and respect of everyone who knew her, from the queen on down.

Sarah in 1862

In 1860, Sarah met a wealthy West African merchant and philanthropist named James Pinson Labulo Davies, who soon expressed his desire to marry her. Although Sarah herself was, at best, lukewarm about the idea, her guardians saw Davies as an ideally suitable match, and once the Queen herself endorsed the proposed marriage, the matter was considered settled. As usual, Sarah's fate was taken out of her hands.

Sarah and Davies were married in a lavish ceremony on August 14, 1862. It was a minor celebrity event, with sixteen bridesmaids, 10 carriages filled with "White ladies and African gentlemen, as well as, White gentlemen with African ladies," and crowds of fascinated onlookers who were, most likely, feeling more happiness about the event than the bride herself.

Sarah and James Davies

After a brief stay in England, the couple moved back to Sierra Leone. Sarah gave birth to a daughter in 1863. The baby was named "Victoria," after the royal sponsor of her mother, and the Queen herself agreed to be godmother. Sarah eventually had three more children. Sadly, she soon developed tuberculosis, which was in those days a death sentence. She died on the Portuguese island of Madeira in August 1880, aged only about thirty-seven. Her oldest child, Victoria, continued to enjoy royal favor. She received a fine education at Cheltenham College, as well as an annuity from the queen. Sarah's many descendants still occupy a prominent place in and around Nigeria.

It would be interesting to know what Sarah privately thought of the strange path she had taken through life. Was she happy, and grateful for being rescued from her precarious position of captive at King Gezo's court? Or did she end her days still feeling like a stranger in a strange land?


  1. You're quite right about so many things being out of our hands. I don't think many individuals these days have any more control over their destinies than did Miss Bonetta. I suspect that she would have preferred to stay in England, rather than travel to Sierra Leone but, like many people, both men and women, she probably made the best of what life had given her.

    An interesting tale, completely unknown to me until now.

  2. This story made me think of Dido Elizabeth Belle.

  3. There was an autobiography that should have been written even if it had to be published posthumusly.


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