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Sarah Bonetta - African princess and god-daughter of Queen Victoria

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 t