Updated: Oct 31, 2022
Black History Month UK 2021 'Black to the Past' campaign - Victorians of African and Caribbean descent in Britain
Sarah Bonetta was born Omoba Aina in 1843, in the newly independent city-state of Oke-Odan following the collapse of the Oye Empire (present-day southwestern Nigeria). The empire had been engaged in a war with the Dahomey Kingdom since 1823 after Ghezo, the King of Dahomey, refused to pay annual tributes to the Oye Empire. During the war, the Oyo Kingdom was weakened and destablised by the Islamic jihads launched by its fast growing neighbour - the Sokoto Caliphate (modern day Northern Nigeria) - and by the 1830s it had fragmented into several smaller city states including Oke-Odan.
In 1848, the Oke-Odan state was invaded and captured by the army of the Dahomey Kingdom (present day Benin). Aina's parents, Oke-Odan royals, died during the attack and other residents were either killed or sold into the Atlantic slave trade. Aina ended up in the court of King Ghezo in the Dahomey Kingdom as a state prisoner. Two years later in June 1850, she was 'gifted' to Captain Forbes as a present to Queen Victoria. Forbes was a British royal navel captain in the West Africa Squadron (WAS) and was on a diplomatic mission to negotiate with King Ghezo to end Dahomey's participation in the Atlantic slave trade.
On her way to England, she was baptised "Sarah" and given the names of Captain Forbes and his ship "The Bonetta," stripping her of her original name Omoba Aina, Yoruba heritage and her Egbado identity. Forbes described her as a "perfect genius" and expressed admiration for her quick learning and talent for music.
A few months later, she was taken to Windsor Castle and received by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The queen described Sarah in her journal entry of the 9th November 1850 and day of their first meeting: 'She is 7 years old, sharp & intelligent & speaks English.'
The queen paid for Sarah to be educated and raised as her goddaughter in the British middle classes. Captain Forbes and his wife became her guardians and she visited the queen regularly. Later, in 1851, after developing a chronic cough, which at the time was attributed to the cold climate, her guardians sent her to the Church Missionary Society school in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The intention was that Sarah would become a missionary but she returned to England after four years. Despite being deeply unhappy at the missionary school she excelled academically.
Upon her return, Queen Victoria arranged for her to be live with the middle-class Schoen family and former missionaries, in Gillingham, Kent. Sarah lived with them for six years before moving to Brighton, against the wishes of the queen, where Victoria arranged for a Miss Welsh to oversee her introduction into British society. Sarah remained in contact with the queen and in January 1862, was invited and attended the wedding of Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Alice.
At the age of 19, James Pinson Labulo Davies, a Yorubian merchant prominent in missionary circles, expressed an interest in marrying her. Sarah and James were first introduced when Sarah was at the missionary school in Sierra Leone, but hardly knew each other. Sarah described her feelings in a letter to Mrs Schoen:
Others would say ‘He is a good man & though you don’t care about him now, will soon learn to love him.’ That, I believe, I never could do. I know that the generality of people would say he is rich & your marrying him would at once make you independent, and I say ‘Am I to barter my peace of mind for money?’ No – never!
But the match was considered a suitable one and Sarah was encouraged to accept. Davies was more than a decade older than her and a widower. She initially turned him down, but the Queen approved the match. Sarah would lose her financial independence if she refused, so the marriage went ahead.
The couple married on 14th August 1862 in a lavish ceremony at St Nicholls Church in Brighton that was officiated by the Bishop of Sierra Leone. Large crowds gathered to witness the event and it was reported in the newspapers of the day. On her marriage certificate, Sarah gave her first name as ina - perhaps a variant of her African name.
Shortly afterwards Sarah and James had a series of photographs taken by Camille Silvy, the celebrity photographer of the day, underlining their status in society. The queen herself may have commissioned them and a few of the images can be found in the National Portriat Gallery.
After the wedding, the newlyweds moved to West Africa and Sarah was baptised at a chruch in the town of Badagry, a former slave port. They settled in colonial Lagos where her husband became a member of the Legislative Council from 1872-74 and ran a cocoa business. The couple had three children: Victoria Davies (1863), Arthur Davies (1871) and Stella Davis (1873). Sarah Forbes Bonetta continued to enjoy such a close relationship with Queen Victoria 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
Their first daughter Victoria was named after the queen with her blessing. When she was christened the queen sent her a gold cup, salver, knife, fork and spoon. Together with her daughter Victoria, Sarah made a trip back to England in 1867 and the queen fell in love with the five-year-old girl, becoming a godmother to little Victoria as well and paying for her education. Unfortunately, that was the last time Sarah saw the Queen Victoria. She had been sick for several years and in 1880 she died of tuberculosis on the island of Madeira at the age of 37.
Sarah’s daughter Victoria, then 17, heard the news of her mother’s death just as she was travelling to Osborne to visit the queen, who reported that ‘my black godchild … was dreadfully upset & distressed.’ The queen paid for Victoria to be educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, and stayed in touch throughout her life.
Sarah's remarkable but rarely told story is just one of the many Black Victorians who lived in Britain. In recent years, creatives have sought to breath life into British history by giving a voice to those forgotten Black Britons. Playwright Janice Okoh explores Sarah's story in her play The Gift and actress-singer Cynthia Erivo is set to produce and star in a film about the African princess. Several books have also written about her including the children's book 'Princess Aina: Queen Victoria's Yoruba Godchild' and the historical novel 'Her name was Aina' by Sierra Leonan writer Yemi Lucilda Hunter.
In October 2020, artist Hannah Uzor created a portrait of Sarah in her wedding dress. The artwork is on permanent display at Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight and was commissioned by English Heritage as part of their effort to recognise UK Black History. A plaque commemorating Sarah Forbes Bonetta was placed on Palm Cottage in 2016, as part of the television series Black and British: A Forgotten History.
Elebute, Adeyemo (2013). The Life of James Pinson Labulo Davies: A Colossus of Victorian Lagos.