Born, orphaned and enslaved in West Africa, then sent to England, cared for by Queen Victoria and lauded as a high-society celebrity figure, the remarkable life of Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880) is one that often slips under the historical radar.
A close friend to Queen Victoria throughout her short life, Bonetta’s brilliant mind and gift for the arts were particularly prized from a young age. This was all the more pertinent against the historical background of the British Empire; indeed, in the time since, Bonetta’s life continues to prove a fascinating insight into Victorian attitudes surrounding race, colonialism and slavery.
So who was Sarah Forbes Bonetta?
1. She was orphaned aged 5
Born in 1843 in Oke-Odan, an Egbado Yoruba village in West Africa, Bonetta was originally named Aina (or Ina). Her village had recently become independent from the Oyo Empire (modern-day southwestern Nigeria) after its collapse.
In 1823, after the new King of Dahomey (the historical enemy of the Yoruba people) refused to pay annual tributes to Oyo, a war broke out that ultimately weakened and destabilised the Oyo Empire. Over the coming decades, Dahomey’s army expanded into the territory of Bonetta’s village, and in 1848, Bonetta’s parents were killed during a ‘slave-hunt’ war. Bonetta herself was then enslaved for about two years.
2. She was liberated from slavery by a British Captain
In 1850, when she was about eight, Bonetta was liberated from slavery by Captain Frederick E Forbes of the Royal Navy while he was visiting Dahomey as a British emissary. He and King Ghezo of Dahomey exchanged gifts such as a footstool, cloth, rum and shells. King Ghezo also gave Forbes Bonetta; Forbes stated that ‘she would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites’.
It is thought that Bonetta being considered worthy as a gift means that she was from a high status background, possibly a titled member of the Egbado clan of the Yoruba people.
2. She was partly renamed after a ship
Captain Forbes initially intended to raise Bonetta himself. He gave her the name Forbes, as well as that of his ship, the ‘Bonetta’. On the journey to England upon the ship, she reportedly became a favourite of the crew, who called her Sally.
3. She was educated between Africa and England
Back in England, Queen Victoria was charmed by Bonetta, and gave her over to the Church Missionary Society to be educated. Bonetta developed a cough which was thought to be a result of Britain’s harsher climate, so in 1851 was sent to Africa to study at the Female Institution in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Aged 12, she returned to Britain and was studied under the charge of Mr and Mrs Schon at Chatham.
4. Queen Victoria was impressed by her intelligence
Queen Victoria was particularly impressed with Bonetta’s ‘exceptional intelligence’, with a particular regard for her talents in literature, art and music. She had Bonetta, who she called Sally, raised as her goddaughter amongst high society. Bonetta was given an allowance, became a regular visitor at Windsor Castle and was widely known for her mind, which meant she frequently outshone her tutors.
5. She married a wealthy businessman
Aged 18, Sarah received a proposal from Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy 31-year-old Yoruba businessman. She initially refused his proposal; however, Queen Victoria eventually commanded her to marry him. The wedding was a lavish affair. Crowds gathered to watch, and the press reported that the wedding party included 10 carriages, ‘White ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with White gentlemen’ and 16 bridesmaids. The married couple then moved to Lagos.
6. She had three children
Shortly after her marriage, Bonetta gave birth to a daughter which she was granted permission by the queen to name Victoria. Victoria also became her godmother. Victoria was so proud of Bonetta’s daughter that when she passed her music examination, teachers and children had a one day holiday. Bonetta also had two more children named Arthur and Stella; however, Victoria in particular was given an annuity and continued to visit the royal household throughout her life.
7. She died of tuberculosis
Bonetta’s lasting cough throughout her life eventually caught up with her. In 1880, suffering from tuberculosis, she went to convalesce in Mariera. However, she died the same year aged 36-7. In her memory, her husband erected an eight foot granite obelisk in Western Lagos.
8. She has been portrayed in TV, film, novels and art
A plaque commemorating Bonetta was placed on Palm Cottage in Chatham as part of the television series Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016). In 2020, a newly-commissioned portrait of Bonetta by artist Hannah Uzor went on display at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, and in 2017, she was portrayed by Zaris-Angel Hator in the British television series Victoria (2017). Her life and story formed the basis for the novel Breaking the Maafa Chain by Anni Domingo (2021).