Primary Primary History

Was Sarah Forbes Bonetta a significant individual in Victorian history?

Every so often you come across the story of an individual that makes you think ‘Whoa! What a life!’ They can make you re-evaluate what you thought you already knew. Sarah Forbes Bonetta is one of those people.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies)
by Camille Silvy
albumen print, 15 September 1862
NPG Ax61384 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies)
by Camille Silvy
albumen print, 15 September 1862
NPG Ax61384 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sarah was born in 1843 in West Africa. She was a princess. In 1847 she, along with others from her tribe, was captured by fighters from Dahomey. Some of the captives were made into slaves and some were kept to be sacrificed. Sarah was one of those kept as a sacrifice.

In 1849, Captain Forbes of the British Navy, visited the Kingdom of Dahomey as part of the British attempt to limit the slave trade from West Africa to the Americas. He told the King that ‘the great white Queen across the seas’ [Queen Victoria] would be very angry if the King of Dahomey sacrificed Sarah, so she was given to Captain Forbes as a gift for Queen Victoria. Captain Forbes took her to England in the ship HMS Bonetta, and in due course, she was presented to Queen Victoria. Once in England, Sarah lived with Forbes and his family for a while.

Queen Victoria met Sarah many times, and paid for her clothes, her education and her upkeep. She became a god-daughter of the Queen. She was friends with some of Queen Victoria’s children and was even invited to their weddings. In 1862, Sarah married James Davis, a successful West African merchant who lived in Bristol. Sarah and her husband returned to West Africa where he carried on his business and she taught for a time in a missionary school there. In 1867, Sarah returned to England and visited Queen Victoria with her daughter who Queen Victoria adopted as a god-daughter too. Sarah returned to live in West Africa and died in 1880 from consumption. She is buried on the island of Madeira.

We are not even certain of Sarah’s real name. Captain Forbes named her Sarah, ‘Forbes’ is his name, and ‘Bonetta’ is the name of the ship that took her to England. Reports of her meeting with Queen Victoria appeared in the Illustrated London News on the 23rd November 1850. Photographs of her wedding in Brighton were on sale shortly after the event. She was, I suppose, a minor celebrity at the time.

Sarah’s significance as an individual in Victorian times can influence the way we think about that period of history. Two facts made me re-evaluate my ideas of Victorian times. Firstly, I was unaware that Queen Victoria had African god-daughters. I knew she had an Indian servant and was enamoured by all things Indian (as can be seen at one of her favourite homes, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight), but I did not know about her connection with West Africa. Secondly, I had no idea there were successful African merchants living and trading in Britain in the 1850s and 1860s. Once you discover something like that, it makes you wonder what else is lost in the mists of time.

To find out more about Sarah Forbes Bonetta, have a look at the videos and pictures on the National Portrait Gallery’s website.

Author, Alf Wilkinson

This blog is by Alf Wilkinson, co-author of the Collins Primary History Pupil Books and Teacher Guide with Sue Temple. Alf taught history for many years and then worked for the Historical Association as their Education Manager. He is the author of numerous textbooks and online materials and was, until recently, part of the editorial team for ‘Primary History,’ the primary journal of the Historical Association.

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