The Mysterious Story Of Princess Sarah, The African Princess Adopted By Queen Victoria
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Featured Image Credit: PA Images
Black History Month heralds the celebration of Black culture here on UK shores, and while many of us would say we have a solid understanding of Black history over in the United States, we have a shockingly poor knowledge of the rich, Black heritage here in Britain.
While there are numerous stereotypes and misconceptions about the status of the Black British population throughout history, there are notable figures of colour that owned businesses, courted royalty and rose up the social ranks to be considered part of the aristocracy.
One of the most famous (yet still relatively little-known) examples of the early Black British elite is Sarah Forbes Bonetta – a young girl who was so adored by Queen Victoria, she became her protegeé. With their close relationship, Sarah was almost like an adopted daughter. So why don’t we know more about her?
Here is Sarah’s incredible life and story.
Originally born as Omoba Aina in 1843, Sarah was a princess of the Egbado clan of the Yoruba people based in West Africa (now modern-day Nigeria).
She was orphaned when she was just a young girl during a war with the nearby Kingdom of Dahomey, and was enslaved by their ruler, King Ghezo – who was reported to often make human sacrifices – when she was just five years old.
But in a strange twist of fate, naval captain Frederick Forbes visited King Ghezo in 1850, on a diplomatic mission to put an end to the slave trade.
Having previously played a major part in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Britain abolished slavery across their empire in 1833, and were now making efforts to stop nearby European powers France and Spain in continuing the slave trade. This was done by meeting local leaders in Western Africa to dissuade them from working with other Europeans.
As King Ghezo was such a prominent figure in the trade, as enslaved people were a source of revenue, Forbes had to fight to impress the inimitable ruler.
It was considered standard practice to exchange gifts during these diplomatic missions, so Forbes was left shocked when King Ghezo offered ‘a captive girl’ to him, alongside a keg of rum, ten heads of cowries, and a ‘rich country cloth’.
But Forbes was clearly taken with Sarah. While she was just seven years old, it was clear that she was highly intelligent. The fact that King Ghezo had not just sold her into slavery, despite having held her captive for two years, also worried Forbes that King Ghezo may be preparing to ‘sacrifice’ Sarah, so he agreed to take her as a gift for Queen Victoria.
It was when Sarah was on the ship that she was renamed Sarah Forbes Bonetta, after his own name and that of his ship.
When did Sarah Forbes Bonetta meet Queen Victoria?
After Forbes introduced Sarah to Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, it was clear that the monarch was immediately taken with her, as we can read from her diary entry in November in 1850.
“She is seven years old, sharp and intelligent, and speaks English. She was dressed as any other girl. When her bonnet was taken off, her little black woolly head & big earrings gave her the true negro type.”
It was at that point that Queen Victoria decided she was going to make Sarah her protégée, taking responsibility for her education and welfare. While Sarah lived with Forbes, she was a guest of the Queen’s on a regular basis – and got on well with her nine children.
Sarah and the Queen were so close that she gave Sarah the affectionate nickname, Sally.
Where did Sarah Forbes Bonetta study?
After a brief spell living with former missionaries in Kent, Sarah was moved to Brighton by Queen Victoria when she was 18, where the Queen was keen to start Sarah’s steady rise into England’s high society.
There was lots of media attention in Sarah’s education and introduction to the aristocracy, particularly as Sarah was incredibly intelligent and likeable. It was at odds of many beliefs about people of colour from the Victorian times, with many believing in fundamentally racist eugenic theories that Black people were less intelligent than their white counterparts (this is, of course, complete nonsense).
Did Sarah Forbes Bonetta marry?
When she was 19, James Davies, a Sienna Leone-born merchant who also had Yoruba heritage, stated he was interested in marrying Sarah.
Letters Sarah wrote to loved ones at the time suggest she wasn’t too keen on the idea of matrimony.
“Others would say ‘He is a good man and though you don’t care about him now, will soon learn to love him,’" she said. “That, I believe, I never could do. I know that the generality of people would say he is rich and your marrying him would at once make you independent, and I say ‘Am I to barter my peace of mind for money?’ No – never!”
But Queen Victoria was keen on the pairing, seeing that the couple married in 1862.
Again, there was lots of press interest in the wedding, and due to Queen Victoria’s involvement – with Sarah being billed as Britain’s ‘African Princess’.
It was the wedding photographs that particularly caught attention. Commissioned by Camille Silvy, the celebrity photographer du jour, the snapshots of the pair underlined Sarah’s acceptance in British aristocracy.
Did Sarah Forbes Bonetta have children?
Shortly after they wed, Sarah and her husband moved to Lagos, Nigeria to better serve Davies’ business.
In 1863, Sarah welcomed her first child, who she named Victoria, after the Queen. The monarch also became Victoria’s godmother.
The Queen was particularly fond of Victoria, sending her a gold cup, salver, knife, fork and spoon after her christening.
Sarah had a further two children, but her health rapidly deteriorated after contracting tuberculosis. She moved to Madeira in the hopes a new climate will help her condition, but she unfortunately died in 1880, aged only 37.
However, Queen Victoria never stopped caring about Sarah and her family. She paid for her goddaughter Victoria, then 17, to attend the upmarket school Cheltenham Ladies’ College, and the pair kept in touch throughout her life.
While Sarah’s life is certainly not indicative of the Black experience in the UK in the Victorian era, it certainly exemplifies certain attitudes towards people of colour – with many seeing a young girl as a ‘pet project’ to see whether Black people could ‘fit’ into British aristocracy.