Sarah Forbes Bonetta was born as Omoba Aina in 1843, a princess of West Africa’s Yoruba people. At an early age, Omoba’s parents were killed and she w
Sarah Forbes Bonetta was born as Omoba Aina in 1843, a princess of West Africa’s Yoruba people. At an early age, Omoba’s parents were killed and she was kidnapped by one of their rival kings. Fate then changed her life forever, and she was taken from her home to far-away Victorian England.
At that time, Queen Victoria ruled over the largest empire the world has ever seen. A few months after Queen Victoria gave birth to her seventh child, she met an orphan girl, introduced to her as “Sarah Forbes Bonetta.” She soon realized that this orphan girl was someone special.
The African Princess
Omoba Aina was one of the many victims of the slave-hunt war in West Africa in 1848. As a child caught up in the fighting, she had watched her parents and siblings slaughtered by the forces of King Ghezo of Dahomey. King Ghezo captured the princess and enslaved her.
She was kept as a slave for around two years, until in the year 1850, Captain Frederick E. Forbes, of the British Royal Navy , rescued her. The captain was visiting Dahomey as an emissary of the British Government.
King Ghezo of Dahomey (Frederick E. Forbes / Public Domain )
Forbes convinced King Ghezo to release the princess to Queen Victoria, saying that such a gift would be a great present from “the King of blacks to the Queen of whites.” Having secured her rescue, he renamed her with his own last name, choosing “Sarah” (sometimes “Sally”) for her first name. “Bonetta” was also added to her name, after the ship which transported her to England. Hence, her name became Sarah Forbes Bonetta.
Presented to a Queen
Forbes brought her to England and presented her to Queen Victoria in 1850. She was only around 7 or 8 years old, and fate had landed her in the court of the most powerful monarch in the world. The Queen ordered her to be sent to the Church Missionary Society so that she might receive a Victorian education.
Victoria was soon awestruck by the amount of intelligence that Sarah displayed. She bore herself in a regal manner and proved to be gifted across the academic curriculum, art, music, studies, and literature. The Queen was very impressed and awarded Sarah a welfare allowance on which she might live. With that allowance, Sarah used to visit Windsor Castle very frequently.
The genius of Sarah was praised by everyone in the royal court. And she continued to outshine amidst the crowd with her proficient abilities in studies. As a result, Queen Victoria named Sarah as her goddaughter and paid all the bills for her education. This may well have saved her life, as Forbes had made it clear to Queen that returning Sarah to King Ghezo would be a death sentence.
When Sarah turned 18, she received a marriage proposal from James Pinson Labulo Davies. He was a 31-year-old businessman from Yoruba, who had made his fortune and was living in Britain. Sarah refused the proposal of James at first.
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To encourage her to reconsider this proposal, she was sent to live with two elderly ladies in Brighton. Sarah described the house as a “desolated pigsty,” and accepted the proposal rather than be forced to remain there.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta in 1862, the year of her marriage (National Portrait Gallery / Public Domain )
Once Queen Victoria had given permission, Sarah was to get married at St. Nicholas Church in Brighton, in August 1862. The wedding party arrived from West Hill Lodge of Brighton in 10 carriages, in what were called “grey pairs.” It is believed that the gray pairs, here, refer to the party consisting of white ladies with African gentlemen, and white gentlemen with African ladies.
Sarah had 16 bridesmaids and the wedding was lavish and celebrated. After the wedding, the couple moved back to West Africa . Here, Sarah was baptized at a church within Badagry Town, a former slave port. Sarah and her husband then settled in Lagos in Nigeria, where Sarah’s husband became the Legislative Council member from 1872 to 1874.
A short time into her marriage, Sarah gave birth to a baby girl whom she named Victoria. Sarah received permission from the Queen herself to name her daughter after her. Sarah visited Queen with her first daughter in the year 1867 and then returned back to Lagos. Later she gave birth to two more children.
Later Life and Death
In 1880, Sarah fell ill and died at the age of only 37 years old. Although the evidence is uncertain, it seems that Sarah died of tuberculosis. Queen Victoria mourned the death of her goddaughter and officially announced Sarah’s daughter, Victoria, as her other goddaughter.
The gravestone of Sarah Forbes Bonetta in Madeira, off the coast of Portugal (Pebling / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Queen Victoria wrote, “Saw poor Victoria Davies, my black godchild, who learned this morning of the death of her dear mother.” Queen Victoria also supported Victoria Davies, as the child was named, with educational expenses including an annuity.
Victoria also encouraged Victoria Davies to visit the Royal household. When Victoria Davies passed her music exam, the Queen declared the day as a holiday for all the students in school.
An Eventful Life
Sarah Forbes Bonetta Davies experienced much in her 37 years of life, both before and after the support she received due to her connection with Queen Victoria. After her death she left a few photographs and only one written word on record, in her wedding license. The name she chose to be married under “Aina,” her real birth name.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta Davies’s life did follow a very remarkable pathway, from African princess, to slave, to goddaughter to Queen Victoria. But this story did reveal a darker side, in the attitudes of Victorians towards different races. The accomplishments of Sarah sparked a vigorous debate on “Whether Africans can be civilized, under ideal British guidance.”
Sarah was a child who grew up from a traumatic slave experience to a privileged and royal upbringing. She was shaped and brought up by one of the most powerful rulers of all time. And her name, and position as Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, will be forever remembered in the pages of history.
Top Image: Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Source: Joseph Langridge / Public Domain .
By Bipin Dimri