Sarah Forbes Bonetta was born around 1843 with the name Aina as a member of the Yoruba. The village she lived in was raided by an army in 1848, and while her parents were killed in the attack, Aina was taken captive and ended up at the court of King Ghezo due to her high status. She had tribal marks on her face that indicated that she was a Princess.
Aina was intended to be used as a human sacrifice, but she was rescued by Captain Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy who had been invited to watch the ceremony. The Captain had been horrified by the ceremony and became even more so when he realised that this young girl was also intended as a sacrifice. He appealed to King Gezo, telling him that Queen Victoria would never kill a child and would certainly not respect him if he did so. After some deliberations, the young girl was spared and gifted to Queen Victoria, though the adults in the ceremony were still sacrificed. He took her to the HMS Bonetta and sailed down the coast to Badagry.
He then took her to the Church Missionary Society where it was decided that she should be baptised and when asked what her name should be, the Captain named her Sarah Forbes Bonetta. She was dressed in English clothes, and the Reverend Vidal painted a portrait of her. As the HMS Bonetta set sail to English, Sarah learned English from the sailors, and she learned it rather quickly.
At the end of July 1850, HMS Bonetta arrived at Gravesend, and the Captain took Sarah home. As she was intended as a present, he wrote to the Secretary of the Admiralty, “As a Government Officer I feel myself in duty bound to request their Lordships to lay the offer before Her Majesty, if they should approve thereof. She now passed by the name of ‘Sarah Bonetta’ and is an intelligent, good-tempered (I need hardly add Black) girl, about six or seven years of age.”
Queen Victoria mentioned her for the first time in her journal on 9 November 1850, which was also probably the date of their first meeting. She told her harrowing story as best she could. She had been confined in a small space for weeks without human contact, and sometimes she witnessed other people being dragged out of confinement to be sacrificed, knowing that it would be her turn one day too. Queen Victoria wrote, “When we came home, found Albert still there, waiting for Capt: Forbes & a poor little Negro girl, whom he brought back from the King of Dahomé, her Parents & all her relatives having been sacrificed. Capt: Forbes saved her life, by asking for her as a present. She was brought into the Corridor. She is seven years old, sharp & intelligent, & speaks English. She was dressed as any other girl. When her bonnet was taken off, her little black woolly head & big earrings gave her the true negro type. She has been called Sally, after the ship in which she came over.”
Queen Victoria knew all too well what it was like to grow up lonely and probably felt for the orphaned girl. Sarah was taken in by the Captain’s family with the Queen paying for her expenses. She also took a great interest in her upbringing. Sarah would remain a welcome visitor to Windsor, and she got on well with Queen Victoria’s children. However, her stay in England came at a cost and during her first winter there, she began to suffer from coughs. It was decided that Sarah should return to Africa, in “one of Her Majesty’s dependencies on the African coast.” Sierra Leone was chosen.
Then suddenly, the Captain died, probably of malaria, just before his 32nd birthday. Nevertheless, Sarah would go to Sierra Leone, where she attended the Church Missionary Society School. Queen Victoria continued to send her presents and books. Sarah met her future husband, James Davies, when he visited the school and was introduced to her.
In 1855, Sarah left the school and was recalled to England at the behest of Queen Victoria. No reason was given, though perhaps Sarah was unhappy there. The Captain’s widow had moved to Scotland and could not take Sarah in. She was taken in by Reverend Schoen, a former African missionary. In late 1855, Sarah once again met with the Queen who recorded, “Saw Sally Forbes, the negro girl, whom I have had educated. She is immensely grown, & has a nice slim figure, but her face is too frightful.” Sarah thoroughly enjoyed living with her new family, and she received further education in the Reverend’s home with his children. In 1858, Sarah was among the guests for the wedding of Victoria’s eldest daughter to the future Emperor Frederick III of Prussia.
At the end of 1860, Sarah received a marriage proposal of her own. Captain James Davies had also been educated in Sierra Leone, and he was a 32-year-old widower. His parents had been liberated slaves. Sarah barely knew him and did not seem very interested. However, Queen Victoria seemed interested in settling Sarah’s future. In 1861, Sarah was suddenly moved from the Reverend’s house to the house of the widowed Miss Welsh. Upset by the sudden change, she felt lonely and isolated. Yet, she remained adamant that she would not marry him. She wrote, “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!”
It wasn’t until she visited the recently widowed Queen Victoria in March 1862 that Sarah finally decided that she would marry Davies. The wedding took place on 14 August 1862 in Brighton. None of the royal family was present, and she was given away by Captain Forbes’ brother. Her new husband’s business was in Africa, and so Sarah had no choice but to follow him. Sarah began to teach although it soon became clear that she was expecting her first child. A daughter was born in 1863, and with permission from the Queen, she was named Victoria. When the family visited Queen Victoria in 1867, she gave the little girl a doll and a gold locket. A son named Arthur was born in 1871, followed by another daughter named Stella in 1873.
By the end of the 1870s, her husband’s business began to fail, and so did Sarah’s health. She became too weak to teach and developed a consistent cough. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and she went to Funchal on the island of Madeira to recover. She felt somewhat better in early 1880, but she relapsed during the summer and died on 15 August. Her daughter met with Queen Victoria who recorded, “After luncheon, saw the Judge Advocate, & then saw poor Victoria Davies, my black godchild, now 17 who heard this morning of the death of her dear mother at Madeira. The poor child was dreadfully upset & distressed & only got the news, as she was starting to come here, so that she could not put off coming. Her father has failed in business, which aggravated her poor mother’s illness. A young brother & a little sister, only five were with their mother, Victoria seems a nice girl, very black & with pronounced negro features. I shall give her an annuity.”
Sarah had asked to be buried at sea, but this was denied her, and she was eventually buried on Madeira. There is no headstone. Sarah’s story recently featured in the ITV series Victoria during the Christmas Special following the second season. 1