Posted by: rebeccakilroy | September 10, 2021

Sarah Forbes Bonetta and Victorian Black Celebrity.

We know very little about the early life of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Queen Victoria’s African goddaughter. She was born in West Africa of Yoruban descent, the daughter of a tribal leader. Her birth name was likely Aina although only one written record of this name exists. In 1848, King Gezo of Dahomey captured her home city of Okeden, killed her parents and took her captive. 

In 1850, Captain Frederick Forbes of the British Royal Navy attended the court of King Gezo on a diplomatic mission to persaude the king to abandon the practice of slavery. Not only was Forbes unsuccessful in this mission, among the diplomatic gifts he accepted at the end of the mission was the young girl Gezo held captive. It’s difficult to imagine an anti-slavery mission justifying the gift of a captive child. In his journal, Forbes wrote that Gezo was known for sacrificing high-status captives and that “To refuse, would have been to have signed her death warrant which, probably, would have been carried into execution forthwith” (Rollerson, et. al.) Forbes had Sarah baptized, giving her his last name as well as Bonetta, the name of the ship that took her to England. Although Sarah lived with his family in England, he wrote that he knew “the government would consider her as the property of the crown” (Rollerson, et. al.)

Soon after arriving, Sarah was presented to Queen Victoria. The queen agreed to pay for Sarah’s education and became her godmother. Shortly after her arrival in England, Sarah developed a cough which was attributed to the change in climate. A year after arriving in London, she was sent to a school for girls in Freetown, Sierra Leone. When Sarah was twelve, Victoria summoned her back to England and lodged her with a white family of former African missionaries in Chatham. Sarah was by this time fluent in English and French and an extremely talented musician.

In her late teens, Victoria removed Sarah from the family she was living with and sent her to Brighton to be formally introduced to society. The English Heritage Society, which presented an exhibit on Sarah last year, reports that the move to Brighton went against Sarah’s wishes. In the fashionable city, she had to present her talents and accomplishments as all young women on the marriage market did. However, Sarah faced another level of scrutiny as a black woman and a royally-connected figure. Her abilities were a source of wonder and a frequent source of commentary in the press. Reports of her talent were used to justify the imperialist work of missionaries seeking to impose English culture on native people around the world.

Not only Sarah’s talent but also her image was co-opted for use by pro-imperialist and pro-colonial arguments. Several photographs of Sarah exist and are held in the Royal Collection Trust and the National Portrait Gallery. The example below was taken when she was in her mid-teens. Sarah wears typical Victorian dress and assumes the common photographic pose of a middle class visitor to a portrait studio. The message is that of successful assimilation into British society. These images were very popular and circulated widely, especially among high society. While still a child, Sarah became a public figure and the face of several causes without her agreement. 

Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

At age nineteen, Sarah married James Pinson Labulo Davies, a widower in his thirties. Her private letters reveal that she was hesitant about the match, but Queen Victoria endorsed it. Davies was a prominent black businessman. Like Sarah, he was frequently held up as an example of the achievements of black people made possible by the “civilizing” effects of British society. Historian David Olusoga, in a 2019 episode of the BBC Sounds podcast “The Essay,” said that their wedding was widely viewed as a symbol of “the perceived accomplishments of Britain’s civilizing mission.” The wedding itself drew tremendous attention in both high society and the press. London newspapers, including the Illustrated News and The Times, reported that the wedding procession included ten carriages and sixteen bridesmaids. They were married by the Bishop of Sierra Leone. 

Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

About a month after their wedding, the couple sat for portraits with photographer Camille Silvy. Silvy was widely known at the time for photographing celebrities including many members of the royal family. It’s possible that Victoria herself commissioned these portraits, two of which are now held in the National Portrait Gallery. In the example above, Davies looks directly at the camera while his wife looks off into the distance, neither at her husband nor at the book open in her lap. The painted background of foliage mimics the sweeping estate backdrop of aristocratic portraits while also suggesting a facsimile of the West African landscape. Silvy seemed to want to capture the Anglicanized dress and poses of the couple while still suggesting a difference or visible distance.

The couple settled in Lagos, Nigeria and had several children including a daughter named in honor of Victoria. Sarah continued to suffer from respiratory illness, likely tuberculosis. She moved to Madeira in the hopes that the climate there would help her. She died there at the age of 37. 

Queen Victoria continued to maintain an interest in the family. In particular, Victoria Davies, later Victoria Randles, was a favorite of her namesake and also became the queen’s goddaughter. In part, this was because of Victoria’s resemblance to Sarah. In a journal entry from 1873, the queen described Victoria as “wonderfully like her mother, very black, & with fine eyes” (Queen Victoria, Journal (RA VIC/MAIN/QVJ (W) 29 March 1873). To the queen, mother and daughter were virtually interchangeable. Their resemblance is visible in a portrait of Victoria in the Royal Collection from around the time the journal entry was written. Victoria’s pose, standing behind a chair, mirrors the teenage portrait of her mother. While Victoria did not have the same celebrity status as her mother, her connection to the royal family ensured she was a topic of curiousity and interest to the press. As late as 1900, a year before Queen Victoria’s death, The Globe reported that “Quite recently the Bishop of Lagos escorted Mrs Randle, an African lady, and her two little children, by Royal command, to Windsor Castle, where Her Majesty received the visitors with the utmost cordiality, and gave presents to the negro children, whom she kissed” (Royal Collection Trust). The two mentions of race in the same sentence overemphasize that the press was still fascinated by the idea of the royal family connecting themselves with black people.

Victoria Davies as a girl
(Image courtesy of the Royal Collection Trust)

In October 2020, English Heritage, in an effort to recognize the historical contributions of black British people launched an exhibit at Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s vacation home on the Isle of Wight. The exhibit featured a portrait of Sarah by artist Hannah Uzor based on the early teenage portrait of Sarah. While Sarah’s image was often used during her life to demonstrate the supposed benefits of imperialism for indigenous people, her portrait now serves as a visual reminder of the often overlooked contributions of black people to the history of Britain. Sadly, very little correspondence or writing from Sarah exists today. Her legacy is made up of the words and perceptions of others. However, I hope that this way of honoring her memory would make her proud.

Image courtesy of English Heritage Society

Sources/ Places to Read More

Olusoga, David. “Legacies of 1619: Sarah Forbes Bonetta.” The Essay, BBC Radio. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000bf72

Rollerson, 02/05/2016 by Deborah, et al. “The African Princess: Sarah Forbes Bonetta.” Black History Month 2021, 19 Feb. 2021, www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/real-stories/the-african-princess-sarah-forbes-bonetta/.
“Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies).” National Portrait Gallery, www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp63230/sarah-forbes-bonetta-sarah-davies?search=sas&sText=sarah%2Bbonetta.
“Sarah Forbes Bonetta and Family.” Royal Collection Trust, www.rct.uk/collection/themes/trails/black-and-asian-history-and-victorian-britain/sarah-forbes-bonetta-and-family.
“Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Queen VICTORIA’S African Protégée.” English Heritage, www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/osborne/history-and-stories/sarah-forbes-bonetta/.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: