Sarah Forbes Bonetta, an African princess in Victorian England

Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies) by Camille Silvy, albumen print, 15 September 1862 (courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London)

Few people know that Queen Victoria had a black goddaughter, named Victoria after her patron. The mother of this girl had been under the protection of the queen since arriving in England as a young child. Her name was Sarah Forbes Bonetta.

Sarah’s story begins with tragedy. Born into a royal family in West Africa, as a five year old child she was orphaned, her parents killed by the King of Dahomey who took her as a slave. A few years later she was given as a present to a Royal Navy captain, Frederick Forbes, who convinced the King that he should gift her to Queen Victoria as ‘a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites). Forbes was against slavery and saw in Sarah a great example against the pseudo-scientific theories of the day, refuting the claims that white people were intellectually superior to other races. As Forbes noted in his journal, Sarah was ‘far in advance of any white child of her age in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection.’

Forbes gave Sarah his own surname, adding Bonetta which was the name of the ship that brought her to England.  He brought her to Queen Victoria who was charmed by the girl and decided to take responsibility for her upbringing. Sarah suffered ill health and so was sent first to a school in Freetown, Sierra Leone. At the age of twelve, Victoria brought her protégée back to England to finish her education.

Sarah was well-liked and was a frequent visitor to Windsor Castle. She was highly intelligent, having learned fluent English on the voyage over to England with Forbes, was an accomplished pianist, and had earned the admiration of many in the royal court. In 1862 she was invited to the royal wedding of Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria.

Later that same year, Victoria gave permission for Sarah to marry a man that she had met in Brighton. James Pinson Labulo Davies was a Yoruban businessman who was living in Britain at the time. The wedding took place in Brighton that August and must have been quite the spectacle. People travelled down from London on the train to be there. She had sixteen bridesmaids and a procession which the Brighton Gazette reported as being made up of ‘White ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with White gentlemen’. The marriage was widely reported in the newspapers.

NPG Ax61382; James Pinson Labulo Davies; Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies) by Camille Silvy
James Pinson Labulo Davies; Sarah Forbes Bonetta by Camille Silvy, albumen print, 15 September 1862 (courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London)

The photographs above are currently on display as part of the Black Chronicles display at the National Portrait Gallery, London. They are from the wedding album taken by the celebrity photographer of the day, Camille Silvy. To give an idea of the high regard Queen Victoria bestowed upon her charge, Silvy had already photographed Prince Albert and other royalty. The display is on until November and is well worth a look.

The married couple ended up settling in Lagos. They had three children, the eldest named Victoria after her royal godmother. Sarah remained close to the queen, returning once to England to bring the two Victorias together. She had never fully recovered from the cough that had afflicted her since arriving in England as a child, and was diagnosed with TB in her late thirties. She went to Madeira to recuperate but died in Funchal at the age of thirty seven. Queen Victoria was greatly saddened by her death and continued to fund Victoria Davies’ education. It does make you wonder why not many people have heard about a woman who was so close to royalty.

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