Story of the Yoruba Slave Girl Turned a Victorian Aristocrat
Sarah “Aina” Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880)
NEWS DIGEST – Sarah Forbes Bonetta Davies, a Yoruba girl from Egbado in present day Ogun State, whose original name was Aina, was captured by the King Gezo of Dahomey in 1848 during a “slave-hunt” war in which her parents were killed.
In 1850, when she was around seven years old, she was rescued by Captain Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy while he was visiting Dahomey as an emissary of the British Government.
Forbes convinced King Ghezo of Dahomey to give Aina to Queen Victoria saying: “She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.” The young girl was subsequently given the name Forbes as well as that of his ship, the ‘Bonetta’.
She returned to England with Forbes who presented her to Queen Victoria, who in turn gave her over to the Church Missionary Society to be educated. Sarah suffered from fragile health and in 1851 she returned to Africa to attend the Female Institution in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
In 1855, at the age of 12, the Queen ordered Sarah back to England.
Queen Victoria was so impressed by the girl’s natural regal manner and her 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 outshine her tutors with her advanced abilities in all studies.
At the age of 18, Sarah received a proposal from James Pinson Labulo (JPL) Davies, a 31-year-old Yoruba businessman of considerable wealth who was living in Britain. He was a great man, a school teacher, naval officer, mariner, merchant and the pioneer of cocoa farming in Africa as well as an industrialist. He was one of the most successful West Africans of the 19th century.
He also funded and helped establish CMS Grammar School in Lagos, having himself been privileged to attend another CMS grammar school in Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1848.
She initially refused his proposal and it is reported that in order to persuade her to accept Sarah was sent to live with two elderly ladies in Brighton whose house she described as a “desolate little pig sty”.
Queen Victoria sanctioned Sarah to be married in St Nicholas Church in Brighton in August 1862 in a lavish wedding. 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.
The newlyweds moved back to West Africa and Sarah was baptised at a church in the town of Badagry, a former slave port. They settled in Lagos where her husband became a member of the Legislative Council from 1872-74 (in which year Lagos Colony was for a time amalgamated into the Gold Coast).
Shortly after her marriage, Sarah gave birth to a daughter and was granted permission by the Queen to name the child Victoria—the Queen also became her godmother.
A solid gold christening set presented to Victoria by the Queen with the inscription, “To Victoria Davies from her godmother Victoria Queen of Great Britain and Ireland 1863” remains with her family in Lagos to this day.
Sarah visited the Queen in 1867 with her daughter then returned to Lagos and had two more children.
Sara Forbes Bonetta continued to enjoy a close
relationship with Queen Victoria such that she and Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther were the only Lagos indigenes the Royal Navy had standing orders to evacuate in the event of an uprising in Lagos.
Throughout her life Sarah had a long-lasting cough that was caused by the climate change between Africa and Britain.
In 1880, suffering from tuberculosis, she went to convalesce in Madeira, Portugal. She died on August 15, 1880 and was buried in Funchal, Madeira, Portugal. She was 37.
Many of her descendants now live in England, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. #HistoryVille
Photo Credits: ©National Portrait Gallery, London. Photograph taken by Camille Silvy, 1862.
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