The Lost Black Princess: Sarah Forbes Bonetta
Did you hear the one about the British Queen with an African Goddaughter?
Neither did I.
How did a West African slave become protegee to Queen Victoria, one of the most famous British monarchs?
Well, to understand, let us wind the story back... for this young lady that we have come to know as Sarah Forbes Bonetta was not originally a slave at all.
It was 1843 in the Egbado village of Oke-Odan that a West African princess of the Yoruba people was born to an African chief. Her name, Aina. A beautiful little girl, born into a great African royal dynasty.
The beginning of the end...or was it?
Turbulent times arrived in the year 1848, Oke-Odan was raided by a Dahomeyan army. (Dahomey being a region located within the area of present-day Benin, it existed from about 1600 until 1894.) During the attack, her siblings were slain and her parents beheaded. However, the little African princess, now aged 5, managed to escape the slaughter...but escape to what?
Aina was captured. But, as the daughter of an African chief, Aina was kept in captivity as a state prisoner and found herself a slave in the court of King Ghezo. However, the king had other intentions. She was to be a human sacrifice at the death of a minister or official in order to serve as his attendant in the next world. But at the age of 5 how could she have known the fate that would befall her?
Enter Captain Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy. In 1850, he visited Dahomey as an emissary of the British Government. It was during this period that he persuaded King Ghezo of Dahomey to release Aina into his care as a gift to the Queen... Victoria.
“She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.” – Captain Frederick E. Forbes
Aina was around eight years old when she was sent to England and it was during this journey that her African name was removed and a new one born.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta.
Forbes, after Captain Forbes; Bonetta, after the ship he commanded – HMS Bonetta.
Little Sarah was intelligent and by the time she disembarked the ship to her new homeland, she spoke English fluently – which rather impressed the Queen don’t you know. So taken with this young child, Queen Victoria declared Sarah her new goddaughter and eagerly raised her as such in the British middle classes.
Moving forward to 1851 we find that Sarah had developed a chronic cough. This was attributed to Great Britain’s climate, which was far removed from the tropical heat of West Africa. Fearing for Sarah’s health, her guardians sent her to back to her homeland of Africa for school. She was 8 and would not return to England until 1855, at the age of 12.
Gillingham, Kent became her home. She lived in relative comfort with the Reverend James Frederick Schoen of the Church Missionary Society, and his wife. Later on, much against her wishes, Sarah was transferred to the charge of a Miss Welsh in Brighton on the Sussex coast. Miss Welsh was to oversee Sarah’s introduction into British society and had been specially chosen by the Queen.
Marriage and birth
Sarah attended many lavish social events. It was at one of these events that she caught the attention of James Pinson Labulo Davies, a widower and Yoruba merchant who was prominent in missionary circles. But for this part of Sarah’s life, I will leave to Bert Williams of Brighton and Hove’s Black History whose commentary – rich in narrative – beautifully describes this chapter of her life.
Farewell to the unknown princess
In memory of his wife, Captain Davies erected a granite obelisk-shaped monument, more than eight feet high at Ijon in Western Lagos.
The inscription on the obelisk reads:
“IN MEMORY OF PRINCESS SARAH FORBES BONETTA
WIFE OF THE HON J.P.L. DAVIES WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE AT MADEIRA AUGUST 15TH 1880 AGED 37 YEARS”
Arnold Awoonor-Gordon, now in his 80’s, had grown up with stories told by his great-grandmother Emily, of how his great-great-grandmother was the adopted daughter of Queen Victoria. He had thought these to be the ramblings of an elderly woman until one day he received confirmation from TV researchers making a documentary of the woman now known as The African Princess.
When Sarah died the Queen wrote:
“Saw poor Victoria Davies, my black godchild, who learnt this morning of the death of her dear mother.”
The Victoria she was referring to was Sarah’s child, who she had named after Queen Victoria.
However, when Sarah died, it didn’t end there. Sarah had three children: Victoria, Arthur and Stella Davies, with those children, a legacy. But take care... legacies are delicate and can be easily lost, ending up as mere legend.
Even one as unique as Sarah Forbes Bonetta ...Princess Aina's of Oke-Odanof.
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