Sarah Forbes Bonetta

In 1850, anti-slavery advocate Captain Frederick Forbes of the HMS Bonetta, visited King Gezo of Dahomia, West Africa. During his visit, Forbes saw that a young girl, aged about eight years old, was to be ritually murdered in a ceremony called ‘the watering of the graves’. Forbes ascertained that the girl was a princess from a neighbouring tribe and that her parents had been massacred in a Dahomian attack at Egbado, during the Okeadon war. He later wrote, ‘It is usual to reserve the best born for the high behest of royalty and the immolation on the tombs of the diseased nobility. For one of these ends she has been detained at court for two years, proving, by her not having been sold to slave dealers, that she was of good family’.

At Forbes’ behest, King Gezo agreed to give the girl to Queen Victoria, as a ‘gift’: he explained that ‘She would be a present from the King of the blacks to the Queen of the Whites’. For a year, Sarah (sometimes ‘Sara’) Forbes Bonetta — as she was subsequently christened — lived with Forbes and his wife; she was presented to the Royal Family in November 1850 and her education and upkeep were paid for by Queen Victoria.

Both the monarch and her foster father were impressed with their young charge, of whom Forbes wrote, ‘She is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and has a great talent for music. She has won the affections, but with few exceptions, of all who have known her. She is far in advance of any white child of her age, in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection’.

In 1851, Sarah returned to Sierra Leone, but returned to England in 1855 and lived with the Rev. James Schoen and his family in Gillingham. She was invited to the royal wedding of Princess Victoria and Prince Frederick William of Prussia (the future Kaiser and father of Kaiser Wilhelm II) in January 1858.

During her stay in Sierra Leone, she had come to the attention of James Pinson Labulo Davies, a widowed former slave who, after being educated in Sierra Leone and coming under the patronage of the Royal Navy, became a prosperous merchant in Lagos. After his first wife’s death, he wrote to Sarah, proposing marriage; he was then living at 9 Victoria Rd.

After a series of discussions between the Palace and Mrs Schoen, it was decided in spring 1862 that Sarah should accept the proposal and, in preparation for her marriage, be sent to live with a Mr and Mrs Welsh in Brighton. Sarah was unhappy to leave her adoptive family and friends in Kent; she knew no-one in Brighton and felt increasingly isolated. She described, the Welsh’s home, 17 Clifton Hill, as a ‘desolate little pigsty’.

On August 16 1862, she and Davies were married at St Nicholas’s Church. According to the Brighton Gazette, the guests included ‘white ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with white gentlemen until all the space was filled. The bridesmaids [Davies’s sisters] were 16 in number’. Captain Forbes’s brother gave her away and the service was conducted by the Lord Bishop of Sierra Leone.

The party had a wedding breakfast at West Hill Lodge, Montpelier Rd, before the bride and groom left for London, en route to Sierra Leone. They had three children; the eldest child, Victoria, became the Queen’s goddaughter, of whom she was particularly fond. When she passed her music examination, the teachers and children were granted a day’s holiday and often visited the Queen at Windsor Castle.

It was during one of these visits, in August 1880, that news came from abroad: the Queen wrote ‘Saw poor Victoria Davis, my black godchild, who learnt this morning of the death of her dear mother. The poor child was dreadfully upset & distressed…her father has failed in business, which aggravated her poor mother’s illness’. Sarah had died at the age of 37 in Madeira 1880, of tuberculosis. She had asked to be buried at sea, like her rescuer Captain Forbes; instead, she was buried in Funchal, Madeira.