Anyone who visited Osbourne House, Queen Victoria’s holiday home, in October 2020 wouldn’t have been able to miss Hannah Uzor’s elegant portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, the Queen’s forgotten goddaughter. The painting, based on the portrait above by Camille Silvy, was commissioned by English Heritage to commemorate Black History Month and is the first instalment of their developing scheme to reintroduce historical Black figures into their heritage sites.
Starting their campaign with Bonetta is no coincidence considering the remarkable life she led as a Black woman in Britain. Within a matter of a few months, her life as an orphaned slave was completely transformed as she became goddaughter and protégée to the most powerful ruler in the world. Her life was full of both tragedy and affluence, but, more significantly, she became a symbol for race culture in the Victorian era and should be offered the greater recognition within Victorian history today.
Bonetta is believed to have been born in the Yoruba Empire – now Nigeria and the adjacent territories – in around 1843. Her misfortunes began at the age of five as she became an orphan during the Okeadon War and was taken as a slave by King Ghezo of Dahomey. Inter-tribal warfare was rife between West African kingdoms, fighting for land and a monopoly over the Atlantic slave trade. The slave trade was an indication of power and the source of wealth for many rulers in the region, particularly Ghezo, who claimed that he would do anything for the British aside from giving up his trading networks.
After being held as a slave for two years, her life in Britain began in irony as a ‘diplomatic gift’ to the Queen of a country that had recently abolished slavery. In 1850, Queen Victoria ordered Captain Frederick E. Forbes to travel to Dahomey and negotiate a deal with King Ghezo that would stop his involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. The details of Forbes’ journey to Africa and these unsuccessful negotiations are outlined in his published journals, Dahomey and the Dahomens. It is here, listed among other gifts of ‘rum’ and ‘cloth’, that we first learn of the ‘captive girl’ that would be returning to Britain with him as a gift for the crown. Forbes later notes that she quickly became a favourite among the crew and emphasises his moral efforts to ‘save’ her from a worse fate in the hands of the Yoruban King. The speculation regarding her ‘noble’ origins also started in Forbes’ writings as he suggested that she must have been of ‘good’ blood to justify keeping her as a slave to the King. Before her journey to Britain, the girl was taken to be baptised under a new name, Sarah Forbes Bonetta, after the Captain and his ship, the HMS Bonetta.
Upon arriving in Britain, Forbes arranged an audience with the Queen who quickly took a liking to Bonetta and, as the captain had expected, offered to support her education and middle-class upbringing. In her diary, Queen Victoria describes her as ‘an intelligent little thing’, an opinion expressed with a surprise that many shared due to the common belief that Black people were incapable of being educated to a high standard. Bonetta’s life thus became something of a social experiment to either prove or disprove the scientists who created these misconceptions. Bonetta became a hot topic in phrenology circles, the members of which had long used skull measurements as evidence for intellectual inferiority in Black people. The Brighton Herald even noted her skull formation as ‘almost Caucasian in its regularity’ when discussing her life on the eve of her wedding, reflecting long-standing racial biases and the inability to move past stereotypical assumptions.
Much of her early education took place at an all-girls missionary school run by the Church Mission Society in Sierra Leone. She was moved there after it was suggested that the British climate was damaging her health, yet another common racial stereotype. Sierra Leone already had an established history for Black British populations after the ‘Province of Freedom’ mission sought to resettle London’s ‘Black Poor’ there in 1787. This scheme was introduced to eliminate the new financial burdens that emerged after they became liberated from their slave positions. This first colony was doomed by disease, but the subsequent colony founded Freetown, where Bonetta would later be sent. As a missionary, her education became a tool for the British to exaggerate their new moral mission in liberating Black populations. Without choice Sarah would become the model for the ideal Black Victorian woman and the image of radical change the British wanted to display. After returning to England, Bonetta lived with a Christian family in Kent, who spoke fondly of her ‘lively disposition’, and she later moved to Brighton to live with Miss Sophia Welsh who oversaw her final introductions into society.
Now a ‘civilised’ member of British society, Sarah easily made a name for herself in Brighton’s social circles with her lively character and musical talents. Her popularity drew the attention of James Davies who requested to meet her with a view to making a proposal of marriage. As her guardian, it was Queen Victoria’s final task to find her a suitable husband, and the 33-year-old wealthy merchant from Lagos fitted perfectly. The wedding took place in August 1862 and was seen as one of the most diverse events of its time. The Brighton Guardian reported the wedding in a short article which was subsequently reprinted nationwide. Most notably, the report dedicated a chunk of its short account to comment on the ‘absence of that abruptness’ in Sarah’s features. The attention to her appearance continued as she was described to lack the characteristic ‘ferocity’ of the stereotypical African Victorian women. These sentences reveal the media’s efforts to seek a justification for Bonetta’s status by using racial stereotypes to highlight her separation from white society, but also to portray her an unusual within the black community. Defined as a ‘pleasant confusion’, the way she was present and perceived by British society was an indication of the deeply ingrained racism that continued to thrive during her lifetime. In signing the marriage certificate, Sarah wrote her full name to be ‘Ina Sarah Forbes Bonetta’, the Yoruban name being a nod to her African heritage and the culture she had lost along her journey to status in England. After the wedding, renowned photographer Camille Silvy captured several portraits of Bonetta and her new husband, permanently confirming her status in Britain and placing her as a symbol against the racial stereotypes at the time.
Over the next decade, Sarah and James had four children. Their firstborn was named Victoria after the Queen, who also became goddaughter to her namesake. The final decades of Bonetta’s short life were much less remarkable than her early ones. Her husband came into frequent financial difficulties, ultimately losing much of their business and estate to bankruptcy. Despite moving to Madeira with her three youngest children to escape the stress, the burden continued to chase her. This, combined with her incurable tuberculosis, eventually drove her to her death bed in 1880.
Like many historical Black figures, Bonetta’s history has been overshadowed by her white counterparts, and even as we reintroduce her to the narrative we remain unaware of her private thoughts. What seems most striking is that as a member of the Victorian middle-class, her education and upbringing were not unique at all. The position she assumed in Victorian high society as a Black woman is therefore pivotal in understanding how race relations were changing in the Victorian era. In Black and British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga describes the ‘great Victorian moral mission’ that came from the inflation of the British ego on the eve of the abolition of slavery. Her life therefore developed as something of a social experiment to see if the British were capable of acting as world moral leaders and she accordingly became the poster child for this changing racial conversation in Britain.
At the cost of her past and her cultural identity, Sarah Forbes Bonetta became a token representative of the Victorian efforts to lead the change in social and racial liberalism, though the reality of her treatment was far from enlightened. She’s an important figure representing the historic diversity of British culture and heritage, yet her story, along with those of many other Black men and women, has been largely ignored. The inclusion of her portrait as part of English Heritage’s Black History Month tributes is a step toward filling this void, but we must also be aware of its temporary nature and continue to work for more permanent incorporations of Black history within British history.
Emily Murrell is a student on the MA in Public History programme at Royal Holloway, University of London.
- Caroline Bressey, ‘Of Africa’s Brightest Ornaments: A Short Biography of Sarah Forbes Bonetta’ Social & Cultural Geography, 6:2 (2005) 253-266.
- Joan Anim-Addo, ‘Bonetta [married name Davies], (Ina) Sarah Forbes [Sally]’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (17 September 2015).
- Sarah Young, ‘English Heritage Unveils portrait of Queen Victoria’s African Goddaughter to mark Black History Month’, The Independent, October 7th 2020.