Fictional depictions of the Victorian era are often overwhelmingly white, and yet black people were very much a part of that society. Queen Victoria’s own god-daughter, Sarah Forbes Bonetta, was a black woman. But just how did an orphaned and enslaved Yoruba princess come to be adopted by the Queen of England?
In 1848, the Yoruba village of Oke-Odan was invaded by the rival kingdom of Dahomey. 5-year old Princess Aina, whose parents were killed in the attack, was captured and sent to the court of the Dahomean King Ghezo as a slave intended for human sacrifice. Instead, Captain Frederick E. Forbes, of the British navy, convinced King Ghezo, to gift Aina to Queen Victoria, “a present from the King of the Blacks, to the Queen of the Whites.” Forbes renamed her Sarah Forbes Bonetta, after his ship the HMS Bonetta, and Victoria had Sarah (or “Sally” as she was called) raised as her goddaughter in England and Sierra Leone.
Years later, as an adult, Bonetta moved to Lagos, with her husband, the Yoruba businessman Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies. Together they had three children: Victoria, Arthur, and Stella. Bonetta died young, at the age of 42, on the Portuguese island of Funchal. Her body is still buried in the British Cemetery of Funchal, with no headstone. Today, her descendents can be found in England, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
By Nnenna Onuoha