Black Victorians. We know now there were many. Servants mainly; also entertainers and musicians. Sarah Forbes Bonetta was different. The few photographs of her that exist, show a woman, unmistakeably African, and yet dressed in the voluminous skirts and elaborate attire of a wealthy Victorian. An oxymoron, surely. A misnomer or mystery. Her life was all of the above.
The Girl who lived
Her name was Aina, a name given by the Yoruba people for a child born with an umbilical cord around its neck. A child who cheated death. She was a member of the royal household of Oke-Odan, a village in what is now South Western Nigeria. In 1848, when just 5 years old, her village was massacred by the slave-raiding army of Dahomey (present-day Benin) and her parents killed. Captured and fated to be a ritual human sacrifice, her fortunes changed when Royal Navy Commander Frederick Forbes visited Dahomey in 1950. He bargained for her life, convincing King Ghezo to gift her to Queen Victoria. “A present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.”
Aina spoke no English when she boarded the HMS Bonetta. Captain Forbes named her Sarah, giving her his surname as well as that of his ship. In his journals he described her in glowing terms. “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, she is far in advance of any white child of her age, in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection.”
This perfect genius of a girl was presented to Queen Victoria on November 9th, 1850 at Windsor Castle. In ordinary circumstances, a young girl, without status or inheritance might have expected a very poor standard of living but the Queen was charmed and declared Sarah her god-daughter, agreeing to pay her expenses. She lived with the Forbes family at first but after the death of Commander Forbes early in 1851, she was put into the care of the Schoen family in Gillingham, Kent.
Less than a year after she arrived, Sarah returned to West Africa, following health concerns thought to be caused by the British climate. She was sent to a Church Missionary School in Sierra Leone but returned to England at the behest of the Queen when she turned 12. Sally, as she was affectionately known, once again lived with the Schoens. Her academic prowess and gifts for music and the arts continued to impress. She became a regular visitor to Windsor Castle and a companion of Princess Alice in particular, the two often seen riding around the castle grounds together.
The Brighton Princess
These were happy years for Sarah but she was reaching an age when she could no longer be ‘kept’ by the family. Marriage was inevitable, whether she liked it or not. And she did not want it, turning down the proposal from James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy Yoruba businessman living in Britain. He was 31 years of age. She was 19. In the end her rebellion was short-lived. Buckingham Palace arranged the match and had she not agreed, her care, paid for by the Queen would have been withdrawn.
The wedding took place in St Nicholas Church in Brighton in August 1862. By all accounts it was a colourful and vibrant affair and Sarah grew to deeply love her husband. The couple lived in Bristol briefly before moving back to Lagos, where Sarah gave birth to a daughter. She named her Victoria, with permission from the Queen, who also offered to become the baby’s godmother. Sarah visited the Queen a final time in 1867 with Victoria then returned to Lagos and had two more children – Arthur (1871) and Stella (1873).
Sarah had always been of fragile health and James Davies, concerned by his wife’s persistent cough sent Sarah to Madeira in the hopes that the pure and dry air would help her to recover. She never did. On 15 August 1880 she died of tuberculosis in Funchal. She was 37 years old.
In some ways Sarah’s life was typical of the Victorian era. Buffeted by fate, she lived at the largess of others – first her guardians, then her husband. She was an exceptionally bright young woman given no agency in her own life. And yet how remarkable it was. No-one could have foreseen the trajectory her life would follow given its origins – from a captured orphan in Africa to protégée of the Queen of England.
For years she was relegated to the footnotes of history but has more recently found a prominent place in its archives. A permanent portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta hangs at the National Portrait Gallery.