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 - Jasmijn Groot -


The story of Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880) may to many read like a tale of an exotic looking figure within British society in Victorian times, a tale of fortune, splendour and privilege, or a tale of a foreigner coming to British shores and blossoming under the tutelage of kind people. However, the theme of freedom is an interestingly subjective one depending on the perspective you take.  


Sarah was born in Oke-Odan, a village inhabited by Egbado Yoruba people, situated in the Oyo Empire, present-day Nigeria. The Oyo Empire was at war with the Kingdom of Dahomey, present-day Benin, during Sarah’s early life, leading to her village being invaded in 1848. Sarah’s parents died in the attack. Some sources mention she had sibling that she never saw again. Most of the villagers were either killed or sold into the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that the Kingdom of Dahomey profited from immensely and King Ghezo was a central figure in. Sarah was incorporated into the court of the Dahomey king Ghezo as a child slave.  


Two years later, British naval captain Frederick Forbes from the West African Squadron visited King Ghezo in Dahomey to negotiate an end to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It really depends on the source you consult how it happened, but in the end, Forbes walked away from that visit with Sarah. The most prominent story, derived from Forbes’s journal, is that he bargained to have the young child slave as a ‘gift’ for Queen Victoria, in order to save her from a massive human sacrifice that Ghezo was displaying.  


At the same time, at this point, there seems to be little consideration where Sarah came from. King Ghezo wanting Sarah at his court and keeping her alive for so long, must have meant that she was of noble birth. Furthermore, Sarah was born as Omoba Aina or Ina. She was baptised Sarah Forbes Bonetta, named after Frobes and the ship that brought her to English shores.

Sarah lived with the Forbes family for a while and was presented to Queen Victoria, who took responsibility for her education and welfare. Sarah developed a persistent cough though, and within a year, she was sent to the warm climate of Sierra Leone. She continued to correspond with the English queen and received many gifts. Sarah returned to England after four years, by order of the queen due to Sarah’s unhappiness in Sierra Leone, and lived with a former missionary family in Kent, where she was on all accounts very content. 


From the very beginning, Sarah displayed an eagerness to learn, talents in music and intelligence in general. Many of her acquaintances described Sarah as sharp, bright, clever, fond of study, and talented. Sarah inspired curiosity in British, not in the least due to her accomplishments. They were keenly scrutinised in the press, particularly by those keen to discover what light Sarah could shed on theory about intellectual inferiority of African people. 


Around the time of her 18th birthday, the sources again differ from each other. Some state that Sarah was transferred to Brighton by queen Victoria, much to her dislike, to properly introduce her into society. Others say that she was transferred there after refusing an offer of marriage from James Davies, a merchant from Sierra Leone with Yeroba roots – in this scenario, the transfer to Brighton, where Sarah lived with two elderly ladies in what she described as a “desolate little pig sty”, functioned as a reminder that all ladies needed to marry to secure financial stability. And then there are sources claiming Victoria ordered Sarah to marry Davies. She did so in 1862. The wedding was a lavish event due to Sarah’s friendship with Queen Victoria.  Sarah and James moved to Sierra Leone, where James’s business was situated. They had three children, the eldest named after queen Victoria. Sarah died from tuberculosis in Madeira in 1880 at the approximate age of 38.  


Image: Camille Silvy (1862) Yoruba princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta. National Portrait Gallery, London, United Kingdom. 


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