Born Omoba Aina, Sarah Forbes Bonetta was an Egbado princess of the Yoruba people, who was was taken to England and presented to Queen Victoria as a “gift” from the king of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites. This is the story of how she spent her life between the British royal household and her Native country Nigeria.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta, originally named Omoba Aina, was born in 1843 in Oke-Odan, a village in Egbado. She was a child of Yoruba royalty and a princess of the Egbado clan in Oke-Odan in present day Ogun state. In 1848, when Aina was about five years old, her village Oke-Odan was invaded and captured by the brutal army of Dahomey. Aina’s parents were decapitated during the attack and her siblings slaughtered. Other residents of the village were either killed or sold into the Atlantic slave trade.
The now orphaned princess was kept as a slave in the court of King Ghezo, a notorious slave trade apologists who allowed slaves to be traded from Dahomey to other ports and then sold into the slave trade. He also participated in the trade himself. Aina was apparently destined to become a human sacrifice.
As part of the British campaign to abolish slavery, the British government began putting significant pressure on King Ghezo in the 1840s to end the slave trade in Dahomey by sending representatives to negotiate with the Dahomeyan king on behalf of the queen.
In 1850 captain Frederick Forbes visited king Ghezi of Dahomey as a representative of Queen Victoria, on a mission to discourage the slave trade. At the meeting he was given an unexpected gift: a captive girl. Who initially had been slated to be executed in a traditional Dahomeyan human sacrifice ceremony. He later wrote in his journal: “She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.”
Forbes took her back to England, re-naming her after himself and his ship the HMS Bonetta: she became Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Forbes was very fond her and impressed by her quick learning and talent for music, writing that she was a “perfect genius”.
When she arrived in England, at just six years old, Sarah was presented to Queen Victoria, who agreed to become her protector. The Queen was impressed by the young princess’s exceptional intelligence, and had the girl, whom she fondly called Sally, raised as her goddaughter in the British middle class.
The queen paid for Sarah’s education, undertaken by missionaries at Palm Cottage in kent.
In 1851, when she was aged eight, Sarah developed a chronic cough, which was attributed to the cold climate of Great Britain. Her guardians sent her to school in Africa in May of that year. She attended the Annie Walsh Memorial School (AWMS) in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In the school register, her name appears only as Sally Bonetta, pupil number 24, June 1851, ward of Queen Victoria.
When she was 12 years old, Queen Victoria commanded that Sarah return to England, where she was placed under the charge of Mr and Mrs Schon at Chatham.
Queen Victoria was so impressed by the Sarah’s natural gift for academic studies, Literature, Art and Music that she gave her an allowance for her welfare and Sarah became a regular visitor to Windsor Castle. Sarah’s genius became admired throughout the royal court and she continued to amaze her tutors with her advanced abilities in all studies.
At the age of 18, Sarah received a proposal from James Pinson Labulo Davies, a 31 year old Yoruba businessman of considerable wealth who was living in Britain.
In 1862, Bonetta married James Pinson Labulo Davies, a 31-year-old Yoruba businessman who was living in Britain.
They had their Wedding at St Nicholas’ Church in Brighton, East Sussex, in August 1862.
The wedding party, which arrived from West Hill Lodge, Brighton in ten carriages and pairs of grays, was made up of “White ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with White gentlemen” There were sixteen bridesmaids.
After their wedding the couple moved back to Nigeria and settled in Lagos, where her husband became a member of the Legislative Council from 1872-74.
Shortly after her marriage, Sarah gave birth to her first daughter in 1863 and was granted permission by the Queen to name her Victoria. The Queen also became her Godmother.
In 1867, Sarah visited the Queen with her daughter and returned to Lagos, where she had two more children Arthur Davies, and Stella Davies.
Sara Forbes Bonetta continued to enjoy a close relationship with Queen Victoria to the point such that she and Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther were the only Lagos indigènes the Royal Navy had standing orders to evacuate in the event of an uprising in Lagos.
Sarah passed away in her late thirties on the 15th of August 1880 after suffering from tuberculosis and was buried in the British Cemetery of Funchal, in the city of Funchal, the capital of Madeira Island, a Portuguese island in the Atlantic Ocean.
Her husband, Captain Davies, erected a granite obelisk-shaped monument more than eight feet high in memory of Sara Forbes Bonetta at Ijon in Western Lagos, where he had started a cocoa farm. The inscription on the obelisk reads.
In memory of Princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta
Wife of the Hon J.P.L. Davies who departed this life at Madeira August 15th 1880
Aged 37 Years
A plaque commemorating Forbes Bonetta was placed on Palm Cottage in 2016, as part of the television series Black and British: A Forgotten History.
A newly-commissioned portrait of Forbes Bonetta by artist Hannah Uzor went on display at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight in October 2020 as part of an effort by English Heritage to recognise black history in England.
A film developed by BBC Film about her life is currently in the works. The upcoming film will be “a celebration of Sarah, a modern, strategic, determined heroine who found a way to embrace her Black-ness, her African-ness and to ultimately find love: forging a path for herself that honoured both her heritage and her upbringing.”