Sarah Forbes Bonetta: Queen Victoria’s Black Goddaughter

Sarah Forbes Bonetta was originally named Princess Aina and was an Egbado princess of the Yoruba people in West Africa. She was orphaned at the age of five during a war with the Kingdom of Dahomey and then became the slave of King Ghezo. Around 1850, Captain Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy arrived on a British diplomatic mission in the Kingdom of Dahomey. He was there to negotiate an end to Dahomey’s participation in the Atlantic slave trade. Unfortunately, King Ghezo refused to end the slave trade and instead offered Aina as a “gift” to Forbes because of his “gentlemanly bearing.”

Sarah Forbes Bonetta as a child

Sarah Forbes Bonetta as a child. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Out of moral concern and the likelihood of her being executed in a traditional Dahomeyan human sacrifice ceremony, Captain Forbes accepted her. He did so on behalf of Queen Victoria believing that the British government would be responsible for the young girl. Forbes then took Aina to Freetown in Sierra Leone and at the Church Missionary School had her baptized, gave her his surname, and renamed her Sarah Forbes Bonetta,* after his ship HMS Bonetta.

When the newly minted Sarah Forbes Bonetta arrived in England she first lived with Forbes and his family. The Stonehaven Journal noted:

“A paragraph has gone the round of the papers stating that Captain Frederick E. Forbes, of the Bonetta, had brought with him to England a juvenile African Princess, who was presented to him by one of the native kings, and that her Majesty Queen Victoria having been informed of the circumstance, had been pleased to direct Captain Forbes to bring the Princess to London, and had graciously signified her intention of taking charge of the child … In the course of a few days, we understand, the child will be taken to Osborne, by command of her Majesty.”[1]

Balmoral Castle in the background with image of Queen Victoria and mention of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Courtesy of British Museum.

Bonetta met Queen Victoria on 9 November 1850 at Windsor Castle. The Queen was impressed and took a “lively interest” in her welfare claiming her as her goddaughter. She also ensured Bonetta got a good education and the young girl was eventually placed with and educated by the Reverend J. Schon, chaplain of the Melville Hospital in Chatham at the expense of the Queen. In addition, a few years after this meeting of Bonetta’s abilities, Captain Forbes wrote of her:

“For her age, supposed to be eight years, she is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and has a great talent for music. She has won the affections, with but few exceptions, of all who have known her, by her docile and amiable conduct, which nothing can exceed. She is far in advance of any white child of her age in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection; and with her, being an excellent specimen of the negro race, might be test the capability of the intellect of the black; it being generally and erroneously supposed that after a certain age the intellect becomes impaired, and the pursuit of knowledge impossible – that though the negro child may be clever the adult will be dull and stupid. Her head is considered so excellent a phrenological specimen, and illustrating such high intellect, that M. Pistrucci, the medallist to the Mint, has undertaken to take a bust of her.”[2]

While residing with Schon, Sarah Forbes Bonetta visited the Queen regularly. This was noted by Schon’s daughter Annie who stated:

“At the Midsummer and Christmas seasons she [Bonetta] often went either to Windsor or Osborne to stay in the family of one of the officers of her Majesty’s Household, and was frequently sent for by the Queen to see her privately. She generally returned to us with very pleasant remembrances of these visits, and nearly always with some handsome present from the Queen. On one occasion it was a beautiful gold watch, at another time a handsome turquoise ring. One beautiful gold bracelet she had was engraved with the words, ‘From Queen Victoria to Sarah Forbes Bonetta.’”[3]

Bonetta was also invited by Queen Victoria to attend the royal wedding of Princess Victoria and Prince Frederick William of Prussia in 1858:

“The Rev. J.F. Schon, chaplain of Melville Hospital, Chatham, has received a command from her Majesty for Sarah Forbes Bonetta … to be present at the marriage ceremony of the Princess Royal, on Monday next. … Her Majesty has … manifested her thoughtful care towards the African Princess by forwarding to her at Chatham several very handsome dresses, and all other requisites for the Princess to appear in on the occasion.”[4]

In August of 1862, Queen Victoria arranged for Sarah Forbes Bonetta to marry Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies. He was a wealthy nineteenth-century African-American merchant sailor, naval officer, industrialist, statesman, and wealthy Lagos philanthropist. His parents were recaptured Yoruba people liberated by the British West Africa Squadron from the Atlantic Slave Trade. He had previously married Matilda Bonifacio Serrano, a Spanish lady from Havana, but she died nine months after their marriage in 1860.

James Pinson Labulo Davies in 1862. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The wedding of Davies and Bonetta was to be grand affair and because of the Queen’s involvement there was great interest by the public. The marriage took place at Brighton’s St. Nicholas Church with all the particulars published in the Brighton Observer. For instance, the paper noted that on the wedding day the thoroughfares and roads to the Old Church were “thronged.” The entire church was also “crammed with people” hoping to get a glimpse of the ceremony and those with tickets were admitted to the north-east entrance and sat as near as they could to the altar while those without tickets had to wait in the “pelting rain” for the church doors to open.

The ceremony was performed by the Right Reverend Lord Bishop of Sierra Leone, assisted by the Reverend Henry Venn and Reverend William Nichol. It was also noted that “a gentleman of color performed the service, which was strictly in adherence with the form of the Church of England.”[5] In addition, the wedding began around 10:30am and lasted about three-quarters of an hour. Other information about the wedding included the following:

“[Through the vestry door] entered four bridesmaids-ladies of colour-apparelled in white dresses, with red ribbon trimming extending round the neck and across the chest; a broad sash of the same coloured material being fastened around the waist, long streaming ends reaching almost to the ground, while tarlatan opera cloaks were thrown over their shoulders, and their heads were encircled with bonnets of tulle of the purist white, and of the latest fashion; the caps being formed of blonde interspersed with apple-blossom.”[6]

These four bridesmaids were the center of attention until four more bridesmaids entered the “sacred edifice.” Two of the bridesmaids were attired like the previous ones and two were outfitted differently. They were wearing “‘Forget-me-nots’ in their bonnets; and their white dresses were trimmed with blue ribbon, with sashes to match.”[7]

They were followed by the bridegroom and five African groomsmen. Six young girls ages twelve to six came next. They “were also dressed in white, with white Tuscan hats trimmed – two with apple-blossoms and four with ‘forget-me-nots” with white lace streamers hanging tastefully down their backs.”[8] Another four English groomsmen and one African groomsman brought up the rear.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Author’s collection.

Everyone then waited breathless for the appearance of the bride. Supposedly a few minutes elapsed as everyone’s eyes remained riveted on the door. At length however those inside the church heard loud clapping outside and knew that the bride had arrived. What those inside did not know was that the wedding party had arrived in ten carriages pulled by matching pairs of grays. When Bonetta entered:

“Steadfastly [she] was … scanned from head to foot. She was robed in pure white. Her dress of glace silk, the trimming being of the same material. A wreath of orange blossoms encircled her brow, and a veil of white lace hung tastefully from it over her shoulders and bosom.”[9]

Forbes was not there to give Bonetta away. He had died several years earlier on 4 June 1852 at sea on board the HMS Tortoise. He had been traveling for his health to St. Helena, the same spot selected for Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile after he had escaped Elba. Forbes trip resulted in him probably succumbed to malaria.

When Bonetta met her bridegroom at the door the Brighton Observer reported that she was “one of the prettiest coloured ladies we ever beheld.”[10] Remarks were also made by the paper that she had “an eye expressive of tenderness and beaming with intelligence whilst her whole deportment is ladylike in the extreme.”[11] After greeting her groom they moved to the altar. The bridal party then arranged itself around them and “behind the bride and bridegroom stood the children, then the African and English bridesmaids … whilst the groomsmen brought up the rear.”[12] It was a quick ceremony that ended with prayers uttered in low tones by both the bride and her groom. They then signed the wedding register, and left the church being “lustily cheered” by those who had gathered to celebrate their union.

A wedding feast was also planned in the garden of the West Hill Lodge and that was where they were head. As they departed a “merry peal” of bells rang throughout the countryside in celebration. A “large” and “distinguished company” then attended the feast where Reverend Venn toasted the newly wedded couple. He proposed good health to them, and Davies responded and expressed that he was “highly indebted to the Englishmen for their kindness since he had been amongst them.”[13] The feast last until 4:30pm and ended with everyone singing “Doxology.” The happy couple then departed with it being noted in newspapers that the newlyweds intended to honeymoon in Sierra Leone for about a month.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta - 1862

Sarah Forbes Bonetta photograph in September 1862. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After Bonetta’s marriage, the Queen remained a part of her life. For instance, when Bonetta gave birth to her oldest child, a girl, she requested of the Queen that she be allowed to name her new daughter Victoria. The Queen agreed and at the child’s baptismal the Queen presented to her namesake a beautiful gold cup, salver, knife, fork, and spoon with an inscription that read:

“To Victoria Davis, from her godmother, Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, 1863.”[14]

Sarah Forbes Bonetta would have two more babies. However, she would also suffer during this time with ill health. In 1880 she was ordered to Madeira hoping that the climate might improve her condition. Instead, she died there that year on 15 August in the city of Funchal, the capital of Madeira Island, a Portuguese island in the Atlantic Ocean. She probably succumbed to tuberculosis. In honor of his wife Davies erected a granite obelisk with the following inscription:

“WIFE OF THE HON J.P.L. DAVIES WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE AT MADEIRA AUGUST 15TH 1880

AGED 37 YEARS.”

Gravesite of Sarah Forbes Bonetta Davies in Maderia. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

News of Bonetta’s passing reached Queen Victoria a short time later:

“In August (1880), Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson were staying at Sandown, in the Isle of Wight, and Mrs. Davies’s daughter, Victoria (the Queen’s godchild), who was in England for her education, was with them. While there the news arrived from Madeira that Mrs. Davies was seriously ill, and that she wished the Queen to be informed of it. This was done, and the following day Her Majesty sent for Victoria to come to Osborne. Just as she was starting thither with Mrs. Nicholson the news came that her mother was dead. Mrs. Nicholson writes: ― ‘I never shall forget the deep emotion shown by our beloved Queen when I gave her the letter announcing Mrs. Davies’s death, and the motherly sympathy she expressed regarding her saying with deep feeling: ‘She was such a dear creature!’”[15]


*Sometimes spelled Sara Forbes Bonetta.

References:

  • [1] Stonehaven Journal, “The Black Princess,” November 5, 1850, p. 8.
  • [2] The Freeman’s Journal, “Interesting Marriage in Brighton,” August 15, 1862, p. 4.
  • [3] “Church Missionary Quarterly Token,” no. 101 (1879): p. 6.
  • [4] Berkshire Chronicle, “Visit of an African Princess to the Princess Royal’s Wedding,” January 23, 1858, p. 8.
  • [5] The Halesworth Times and East Suffolk Advertiser, “The Interesting Marriage at Brighton,” August 19, 1862, p. 4.
  • [6] ibid.
  • [7] ibid.
  • [8] ibid.
  • [9] ibid.
  • [10] ibid.
  • [11] ibid.
  • [12] ibid.
  • [13] ibid.
  • [14] Exeter Flying Post, “Presentation from the Queen to Mrs. Davis, Late MIss Bonetta Forbes,” November 25, 1863, p. 8.
  • [15] Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, “An Exonian’s Story of the Slave Trade,” September 22, 1885, p. 2.

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