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How Sarah Forbes Bonetta Was 'Gifted' to Queen Victoria

Sara Forbes Bonetta
Sarah Forbes Bonetta, by French photographer Camille-Léon-Louis Silvy (1834–1910), in a photo taken on Sept. 15. 1862. Wikimedia Commons

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In episode 17 of the British historical television drama, "Victoria," titled "Comfort and Joy," the King of Dahomey "gifts" Queen Victoria an African princess by the name of Sarah. Even for 1846, the gesture is disturbing to say the least, but as many fictionalized versions of the Queen's life have suggested, Sarah grew to be more than a possession; she endeared herself to the monarch and even became her goddaughter. While the story may sound sweet, and even suggest some sort of overcoming of institutionalized racism, it's mostly just that — a story. Sarah Forbes Bonetta Davies was a real person, and she really did have a close connection to Queen Victoria, but it may not have been quite the feel-good tale it's been spun into over the last century and a half.

According to author and historian Helen Rappaport, the facts presented onscreen and in numerous retellings of the relationship between Victoria and Sarah are a bit muddled. And complicating the true history further is the fact that there is very little primary source material on Sarah, "which has led to a certain amount of unverified hagiography about her story," says Rappaport.

Captured and Gifted to England's Queen Victoria

But what we do know about Sarah is that she was a West African Yoruba girl who was captured by the King of Dahomey in 1848 during a "slave-hunt" war that killed her parents. In 1850, when Sarah was about 8 years old, Captain Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy visited Dahomey on a special mission and convinced King Ghezo of Dahomey to let Sarah go back to Britain with him. It's reported that he told the leader, "she would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites."

Taking on the name of Forbes and his ship, the Bonetta, Sarah (whose original African name is thought to have been Aina) returned to England with the captain and was presented to Queen Victoria. According to an article written by Rappaport, Sarah was positively received by the Queen who had "always had a fascination for her black and colonial subjects at a time when such interest was rare among the white aristocracy." Victoria nicknamed her Sally and continued to invite her back to Windsor for regular visits.

"What I find most interesting about her story is the way in which Queen Victoria took Sarah under her wing," Rappaport says via email. "Extraordinarily for her time, the Queen was not racially prejudiced and did her best for Sarah within the limitations of Victorian attitudes to race that then prevailed."

Sara Forbes Bonetta
Sarah Forbes Bonetta with her husband James Pinson Labulo Davies on Sept. 15. 1862.
Camille Silvy/Getty Images

While Sarah did pay several visits to the Queen during her first year in England and even became particularly close with her daughter, Princess Alice, her poor health prompted Victoria to send her back to Africa in May 1851. Victoria believed the damp English climate was worsening Sarah's condition, and she paid for the girl's education at a mission school in Sierra Leone. Over the next four years, however, Sarah grew increasingly unhappy back in Africa and in 1855, Victoria commanded her return to England.

"What I most admire about Sarah is that she was not afraid to speak out and write and tell the Queen of her unhappiness when she was sent back to Africa in May 1851," Rappaport says. "The Queen had her brought back to England in 1855 as soon as she heard."

When she returned in December, Victoria wrote in her journal, "Saw Sally Forbes, the negro girl whom I have had educated: she is immensely grown and has a lovely figure."

An Overblown Tale

But while Sarah clearly held a special place in Victoria's heart, she wasn't the surrogate daughter many dramatized accounts have made her out to be. "Victoria did not consider Sarah as 'family' — this a myth perpetuated by people who want to invest more significance in the relationship than there really was," Rappaport says. "The queen certainly was fond of and indulged Sarah but she did not take her into the bosom of the royal family and she did not live with the royal family at Windsor as some sources suggest (notably the ITV "Victoria" series). A lot of the official correspondence relating to Sarah's care was carried out by Mrs. Harriet Phipps, the wife of the Queen's Keeper of the Privy Purse, Sir Charles Phipps, who would have dealt with any monies paid to support Sarah's upkeep, etc. There is virtually nothing relating to firsthand exchanges between the Queen and Sarah directly, though it is known that Sarah did write to her."

"Sarah seemed very close to the Queen and probably did look upon her as a parental figure, but the real surrogate parents were Captain Forbes, who rescued her in Dahomey, and his wife," Rapport says. "Sadly, Forbes died not long after — in 1852 — and his widow had several children and could not take Sarah in."

Sarah Marries James Pinson Labulo Davies

In 1862, Sarah married a West African businessman, James Pinson Labulo Davies, and their wedding made headlines across England. "The press made a lot of her wedding in 1862 — but again, it was the curiosity value of two black people having a society wedding in Brighton which was an extraordinary event as far as the public were concerned," Rappaport says. "I really don't think we can say that she had any influence or significance in her own lifetime or even in the years after her death — bar the obvious 'curiosity value' of having been a captive sent as a gift to the Queen. Any 'influence' Sarah has is very retrospective and comes much later with the rediscovery of her story in the 1980s and 1990s."

Soon after marrying Davies, Sarah gave birth to her first child, and named her daughter Victoria, in honor of the Queen who agreed to serve as the girl's godmother. While there may not be any evidence of any direct correspondence between Davies and the Queen, Rappaport says the young girl was likely welcome to visit the royal residence on a regular basis.

Sara Forbes Bonetta
The gravestone of Sarah Forbes Bonetta at the English Cemetery in Funchal, Madeira, a Portuguese island in the Atlantic ocean, where she died.
Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

"It is suggested that Sarah did, however, visit Windsor regularly, upon invitation, and the Queen mentions seeing her once or twice in her journals, as well as Sarah's daughter Victoria who was the Queen's godchild." Rappaport emphasizes this point, and for good reason, as it is often misreported that Sarah was Queen Victoria's godchild, rather than Sarah's daughter, Victoria. "Sarah is said to have formed a friendship with Princess Alice, the queen's second daughter, but sadly there are no surviving letters or documents to confirm this. I personally would have so liked to prove this was the case."

Queen Victoria recorded Sarah's 1867 visit to England in her journal, writing, "Saw Sally, now Mrs. Davies & her dear little child, far blacker than herself, called Victoria & aged 4, a lively intelligent child, with big melancholy eyes." In 1880, Sarah died of tuberculosis at the age of 37, on the day Victoria had been expecting a visit from her godchild. The Queen wrote in her journal of the girl, "I shall give her an annuity," and she continued to pay for her education at Cheltenham Ladies College from 1881 to 1883.

"Sarah's story is clearly an inspiring and touching one, but we have to be careful about investing it with greater significance after the event than it had at the time," Rappaport says. "She died at the age of only 37, and after her marriage in 1862 and her departure for Sierra Leone, she was never mentioned again in the British press. The queen was fond of her, but bar the passing mention of Sarah and her daughter Victoria in her journals, Sarah did not figure in the queen's life and most biographies only make the most passing reference to her. Sarah sadly left no diaries and only a few letters written in the 1850s, so we don't know her full side of the story."

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