Sarah Forbes Bonetta: Black and British

Learning Black History Year Round

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Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Photo courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

The year was 1848. A Dahomeyan army of fearless Amazon warriors besieged Oke-Odan, a Nigerian village inhabited by the Egbado. Lives were lost; many were stolen to become slaves. Taken captive during the raid was 5-year-old Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843–1880), born Aina. Her parents had been decapitated; her siblings slaughtered. Tribal marks on her face marked her status of princess, thus she was taken to the court of the Dahomeyan king, Ghezo, to become a human sacrifice.

Awaiting certain death, Aina was rescued by Captain Frederick Forbes of the Royal Navy. He convinced King Ghezo to give Aina to Queen Victoria, telling him that Queen Victoria would never kill a child and would certainly not respect him if he did so. About Aina, Forbes later wrote in his journal: “She would be a present from the king of the blacks to the queen of the whites.”

Forbes took Aina home to Gravesend, in northwest Kent, England. His wife then baptized Aina with the name Sarah Forbes Bonetta, for his ship, HMS Bonetta. Shortly thereafter, young Bonetta would meet Queen Victoria.

In 1850, Bonetta received an invitation to Windsor Castle, where she impressed the Queen Victoria and other royals. Despite her continuing to live with the Forbes, Bonetta had also become a part of the royal household and was a playmate to the royal prince and princess.

Young Bonetta quickly mastered music, art, and writing. Forbes later described her as a, “perfect genius with an amazing strength of mind and affection.” Queen Victoria, noting Bonetta’s penchant for learning and natural regal manner, raised as her goddaughter in the British middle class. She gave Bonetta an allowance for her welfare and allowed her to become a regular visitor to Windsor Castle.

No stranger to loneliness, Queen Victoria told Bonetta’s story: “Bonetta had been confined in a small space for weeks without human contact, and sometimes witnessed other people being dragged out of confinement to be sacrificed, knowing that it would be her turn one day too.”

She also wrote of her first meeting with Bonetta: “When we came home, found Albert still there, waiting for Captain Forbes and a poor little Negro girl, whom he brought back from the King of Dahomé, her Parents and all her relatives having been sacrificed. Captain Forbes saved her life by asking for her as a present . . . She is seven years old, sharp and intelligent, and speaks English. She was dressed as any other girl. When her bonnet was taken off, her little black woolly head and big earrings gave her the true negro type.”

In 1851, Bonetta developed a chronic cough from Great Britain’s climate and tuberculosis. She was then sent to school in Africa, returning to England in 1855. She later married Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a Victorian Lagos businessman.

Bonetta died of tuberculosis in 1880. Davies erected a monument in her memory at Ijon, in Western Lagos, where he had started a cocoa farm.

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