history

Eminent Victorians: Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Full-length photograph of Sarah Forbes Bonetta taken in 1862.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta by Camille Silvy, 1862, via Wikipedia.

People call her Queen Victoria’s black daughter, but Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s story is more complex than that. Was she, as Wikipedia would have it, a West African princess, Omoba Aina? And did Queen Victoria really adopt her?

Unfortunately, we may never know the truth about Forbes Bonetta’s origins. She was silent on that subject in her letters and never referred to any royal lineage. And, in the circles in which she sometimes moved, it would probably have rated a mention. Captain Frederick E. Forbes, the man who brought her to England when she was seven, and after whom she’s named (Bonetta was for his ship,) suspected she was from a good family. But she herself had only confused recollections of her past.

Sally (Sarah) Forbes Bonetta, aged about 13.

The Captain was visiting King Ghezo of Dahomey as part of an anti-slavery mission on behalf of the British Empire. Personally, I have my doubts as to how successful the meeting was, with regard to its stated aim, since Sarah was given to Forbes as a gift to Queen Victoria or, as Walter Dean Myers put it, “a present from the King of the blacks to the Queen of the whites.” Charming!

To be fair to the Captain (not to mention Queen Victoria,) Forbes Bonetta would have been put to death if the “gift” had been refused. Still, it’s perhaps a bit of a stretch to call this process an adoption. On a happier note, Victoria paid for Sarah’s education (the Captain called his young charge “a perfect genius”) and took a warm interest in her well-being. After an unsuccessful stint in a school in Sierra Leone, Sarah was sent to Kent where she lived with the middle-class Schoen family. It was Mrs. Schoen, not Victoria, whom Sarah addressed as “Mama” in her letters.

Having been brought up as a proper English lady, Sarah was expected to marry like one. Though initially unenthusiastic about the match, she obeyed Victoria’s wish that she marry Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a British naval officer originally from Sierra Leone.

A portrait of James Pinson Labulo Davies and Sara Forbes Bonetta, 1862, by Camille Silvy .

Despite this inauspicious beginning, the marriage seems to have been happy. Together they had three children, one of whom, Victoria, was named for the queen and became her goddaughter. Sadly, Sarah died of tuberculosis when she was only 37. The queen settled an annuity on her small namesake.

As for Davies, he erected a monument “IN MEMORY OF PRINCESS SARAH FORBES BONETTA.”

1 thought on “Eminent Victorians: Sarah Forbes Bonetta”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s