Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Sara Forbes Bonetta (1843 –1880) was a West African Egbado princess of the Yoruba people who was orphaned in intertribal warfare, forced into slavery, rescued by Captain Frederick Edwyn Forbes of the Royal Navy, and became a goddaughter to Queen Victoria. She married Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy Victorian Lagos philanthropist.
Frederick Edwyn Forbes (1819 – 1851) was a descendent of the Pitsligo and Culquhonny branch of the House of Forbes. He was the third son of Capt. John Forbes, R.N., and Laetitia White. His grandparents were George Forbes (1741-1791) and Jane Lumsden. George was the brother of William “Copperbottom” Forbes, 1st of Callendar (1783-1815).
At the age of 14, Frederick E. Forbes followed his father’s footsteps by entering the Royal Navy in 1833. He passed his officer examination in 1839 and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1843. In 1847, he was given the command of the H.M.S. Bonetta. In 1849, Queen Victoria sent Commander Forbes on a mission to the African nation of Dahomey to negotiate with King Ghezo (or Gezo) in order to cease his warring with neighboring tribes.
Forbes arrival at the King Ghezo’s court in 1850 coincided with the ritual ceremony known as “Ek-onee-noo-ah-toh” – the human sacrifice of King’s enemies captured in battle. Forbes saw a small girl in the group that was to be put to death. That girl, Omoba Aina, was born in 1843 at Oke-Odan, an Egbado omobe clan of Yoruba in present-day Nigeria. In 1848, King Ghezo of the African kingdom of Dahomey had raided the village, killed Aina's parents, and captured her. At the age of five, she became a slave in the court of King Ghezo.
Forbes informed King Ghezo that Queen Victoria would never kill a child and would certainly not respect him if he did so. He convinced the King to spare her life and offer her as a “gift” from the “King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites,” as Forbes wrote in his memoirs. Forbes brought the girl to the Church Missionary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where she was baptized. He named her Sarah and gave the child his own surname and added the “Bonetta” after his ship, the H.M.S. Bonetta.
She lived on his ship for the next year as he completed his tour of duty in Africa. Forbes wrote many entries about her in the ship’s dairy, such as: “She is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and (has) great talent for music……she is far in advance of any white child of her age in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection…”
When Forbes returned to England, he informed First Secretary of the Admiralty John Parker of the “gift” of Sara Forbes Bonetta: “As a Government Officer I feel myself in duty bound to lay the offer before Her Majesty, if they should approve thereof. She passes by the name of ‘Sarah Bonetta’ and is an intelligent, good tempered ( I need hardly add Black ) girl, about six or seven years age.” Parker grated permission and Forbes arranged for an audience with Queen Victoria.
Queen Victoria wrote in her journal about her first meeting with Sarah on 9 November 1850. She relayed Sarah’s story about being confined in a small space for weeks and about other people being dragged out of confinement to be sacrificed. Queen Victoria wrote, “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.”
The Queen was surprised at the amount of English the little girl learned in her time on the ship and was moved by her story. She accepted her “gift” and made Sarah her goddaughter. The Queen took on the responsibility to cover Sarah’s financial expenses and maintained a personal relationship with Sarah throughout her life. Sarah was a frequent visitor to the royal palaces and had close relationships with the Queen’s children. The Queen wrote often about Sarah in her diary on January 11, 1851: “After luncheon Sally Bonita, the little African girl, came with Mrs Phipps, & showed me some of her work. This is the 4th time I have seen the poor child, who is really an intelligent little thing…”
Captain Forbes passed away after Sarah’s first year in England, probably from malaria. The Queen arranged for Sara to return to Africa and paid for all her expenses at a Church Missionary School in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She learned French and was trained to live as a Lady in English upper-class society. In 1855 at the age of 12, Sarah returned to England. The Principal reported in the school records: “In May I had a letter from the Hon Mrs Phipps, requesting me to send Sally Forbes Bonetta at once to England by Her Majesty’s command……. I immediately made preparations and on the 23rd of June Sally sailed for England under the care of Rev. E Dicker.”
Sarah was placed with Rev. James Schoen, a former African missionary, and his wife Elizabeth. Sarah was very happy in her new situation and she soon referred to Mrs. Schoen as “Mama.” On one of her many visits to Windsor Castle, she sent the following letter home: “Dear Mama, I arrived yesterday at Windsor. Lady Phipps met me at the station in the chariot with Mrs Mallet’s little girl Eva. Charlie is much better. It seems like he had been very ill. Albert is at home and is a very gentlemanly little fellow…… Was it not very kind of the Queen – she sent to know if I had arrived last night as she wishes to see me some morning…”
Sarah maintained relationships with all the members of the Royal family. In 1858, on the occasion of the Royal wedding between Princess Victoria and Prince Frederick William of Prussia the newspaper, The Illustrated London News wrote the following announcement: “A command has been received from her Majesty for Sarah Forbes Bonetta, the young African Princess… to be present to witness the marriage ceremony of the Princess Royal.” In January 1862, she was also invited to and attended the wedding of Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Alice.
In August 1862, Queen Victoria arranged for Sarah to marry Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a 31-year-old wealthy Yoruba businessman from Sierra Leone. Acccording to the Brighton Gazette, the wedding party arrived in ten carriages and pairs of grays and consisted of “White ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with White gentlemen.” She was escorted down the aisle by Captain George Forbes, the brother of Commander Frederick Forbes.
Captain Davies was a wealthy Yoruba businessman and after their wedding the couple moved back to their native Africa. Sarah taught school until her first child in 1863. Queen Victoria gave permission to Sarah to name her Victoria and the Queen became her godmother. The couple had two other children: Arthur Davies (1871), and Stella Davies (1873). By the end of the 1870s, Sarah’s health began to fail. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and she went to Funchal on the island of Madeira to recover. She died there on August 15, 1880. Many of Sara's descendants now live in either England or Sierra Leone, while a separate branch, the aristocratic Randle family of Lagos, remains prominent in contemporary Nigeria.
Sara and Captain Forbes were portrayed by Zaris-Angel Hator and Ben Lamb, respectively, in episode 9 in season two (“Comfort and Joy”) in the 2017 TV series Victoria, produced by Mammoth Screen and PBS Masterpiece.
For more information, please see:
Six Months' Service in the African Blockade, from April to October, 1848, in Command of H.M.S. Bonetta, by Frederick Edwyn Forbes (Clan Forbes Reference Library)
Dahomey and the Dahomans: Being the Journals of Two Missions to the King of Dahomey, and Residence at His Capital, in the Year 1849 and 1850 (Volumes 1 and 2), by Frederick Edwyn Forbes (Clan Forbes Society Reference Library)
Sarah Bonetta Forbes, 'Queen Victoria's African Princess', by John Van der Kiste, 2018
At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England, by Walter Dean, 1999