Sara Forbes Bonetta, (born Omoba Aina; 1843 – 15 August 1880), was a princess of the Egbado clan of the Yoruba people in West Africa who was orphaned during a war with the nearby Kingdom of Dahomey as a child, and later became enslaved to King Ghezo of Dahomey.


Sara Forbes Bonetta, otherwise known as Sally Forbes Bonetta, (born Aina or Ina; c. 1843 – 15 August 1880),[2] was ward and goddaughter of Queen Victoria. She was believed to have been a titled member of the Egbado clan of the Yoruba people in West Africa, who was orphaned during a war with the nearby Kingdom of Dahomey as a child, and was later enslaved by King Ghezo of Dahomey. She was given as a "gift" to Captain Frederick E. Forbes of the British Royal Navy and became a goddaughter of Queen Victoria. She married Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy Lagos philanthropist.

Sara Forbes Bonetta
Sara Forbes Bonetta photographed by Camille Silvy in 1862
Aina (also Ina)[1]

Oke Odan, Yorubaland
Died15 August 1880 (aged 36–37)
Cause of deathTuberculosis
Resting placeFunchal, Madeira Island, Portugal
Other namesSarah Forbes Bonetta
Sally Forbes Bonetta
(m. 1862)
RelativesJohn Randle (physician) (son-in-law)
Ameyo Adadevoh (great-great-granddaughter)

Early life

Lithograph of Forbes Bonetta, after a drawing by Frederick E. Forbes, from his 1851 book Dahomey and the Dahomans; being the journals of two missions to the king of Dahomey, and residence at his capital, in the year 1849 and 1850

Originally named Aina (or Ina),[3] she was born in 1843 in Oke-Odan, an Egbado Yoruba village in West Africa which recently became independent from the Oyo Empire (present-day southwestern Nigeria) after its collapse.[4] The Kingdom of Dahomey was under subjugation by Oyo, and it was a historical enemy of the Yoruba people. Oyo and Dahomey began to engage in a war in 1823 after Ghezo, the new King of Dahomey, refused to pay annual tributes to Oyo. During Oyo's war with Dahomey, Oyo was weakened and destabilised by the Islamic jihads launched by the growing Sokoto Caliphate.[5] The Oyo Empire began to disintegrate by the 1830s, fragmenting Yorubaland into various small states. Dahomey's army began to expand eastwards into Oyo's former and defenseless Egbado territory, capturing Egbado slaves in the process.[4]

In 1848, Oke-Odan was invaded and captured by the army of Dahomey. Aina's parents died during the attack and other residents were either killed or sold into the Atlantic slave trade. Aina ended up in the court of King Ghezo of Dahomey as a young child slave. Dahomey was a major West African power that immensely profited from the Atlantic slave trade. After the British abolition of slavery, King Ghezo fought against British attempts to curtail Dahomey's exportation of slaves. Biographer and historian of Africa Martin Meredith quotes King Ghezo telling the British, "The slave trade has been the ruling principle of my people. It is the source of their glory and wealth. Their songs celebrate their victories and the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery."[6][7][8]

Captain Forbes at Dahomey

In July 1850, Captain Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy arrived to West Africa on a British diplomatic mission, where he unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate with King Ghezo to end Dahomey's participation in the Atlantic slave trade.[9] As was customary, Captain Forbes and King Ghezo exchanged gifts with each other. King Ghezo offered Forbes a footstool, rich country cloth, a keg of rum, ten heads of cowry shells, and a caboceers stool.[10]

King Ghezo made it clear that he would not stop the slave trade. He believed that palm oil had some profit but little power. Commander Forbes was frustrated and angry. The Dahomian holiday ceremonies continued concurrently with Commander Forbes's continuous discussions with King Ghezo. Forbes started to count the number of soldiers under King Ghezo. He felt that the Dahomian monarch was attempting to show his power and give the impression that his army was larger and more powerful.[11]

Commander Forbes then heard a scream and then looked to a group of Dahomans who were waving their guns and carrying people in little baskets. Forbes was informed by an interpreter that those he saw being taken in little baskets were going to be executed. The ceremony was called the “Ek-onee-noo-ah-toh” or "watering of the graves."[12] The people in the baskets were dressed in white garments, were to be slaughtered and their blood dripped on the graves of high ranking Dahomans. Some of the intended victims had been held in captivity for over two years for this tradition. They were being carried while their hands and feet were tied together. As the victims were dragged through the ranks, the Dahomans poked and jabbed them with knives and spears.[11]

Commander Forbes watched in horror as a man from the basket tipped over to a pit and the man viciously fell down. As he hit the ground, he was instantly attacked and his head cut off. Forbes tried but failed to make King Ghezo stop the ritual. Forbes then offered him money. The King eventually allowed him to bargain for some of the victims. However, King Gezo's interpreters clarified that the custom of watering the ancestors' graves was an ancient one and could not be discontinued without dishonouring the Dahomey people.[11]

He had never witnessed a ritual this vicious and violent. He was certain that this was the worst moment he had ever encountered in all the years fighting the slave trade. He then noticed the girl, Aina. She was so tiny, so still. As they carried her closer to the pit, the drums became more intense. Forbes was appalled. He found it hard to comprehend how a king could ritually murder a child. However, Gezo found it extremely easy to sacrifice the girl. It was explained that she was an Egbado, a Dahoman enemy. Her blood on the King's ancestors' tombs would be a tribute to them.[11]

Forbes panicked and assured King Ghezo that Queen Victoria wouldn't honor a king that would kill a child, so the king offered Aina to be a gift for Queen Victoria. Forbes estimated that Aina was enslaved by King Ghezo for two years. Although her actual ancestry is unknown,[13] Forbes came to the conclusion that Aina was likely to have come from a high status background because of the tribal markings on her face and that she had not been sold to European slave traders.[10] Describing Aina in his journal, he wrote: "one of the captives of this dreadful slave-hunt was this interesting girl. It is usual to reserve the best born for the high behests of royalty and the immolation on the tombs of the deceased nobility…".[14]

Dahomey was notorious for mass executing its captives in spectacular human sacrifice rituals as part of the Annual Customs of Dahomey. Forbes was aware of Aina's potential deadly fate in Dahomey, and as he wrote in his journal, refusing Aina "would have been to have signed her death-warrant, which probably would have been carried into execution forthwith."[14][10] Captain Forbes accepted Aina on behalf of Queen Victoria and embarked on his journey back to Britain.[14]

Queen Victoria

Captain Forbes renamed her Sara Forbes Bonetta, after himself and his ship HMS Bonetta. Forbes initially intended to raise her himself. However, Sara was later taken to meet Queen Victoria and she told her majesty about her horrible life, that for a couple of years she was kept in a small cage next to other unfortunate prisoners who she watched from time to time be taken out and slaughtered in rituals of the King of Dahomey. Her jailers often taunted her with the truth that she was being saved for ceremonial purposes too, and when it suited him, King Gezo intended to sacrifice her as a gift to his royal ancestors' tomb.[11]

Queen Victoria was touched by her story and she requested that Sara have her photo taken after their visit, Sara was taken to the English-based studio of American photographer John J. Mayall. Sara was afraid of the photographer because she had no idea what he intended. When she noticed a portrait of a man with a sword hanging on the wall, her fear turned into panic. She yelled, "Cut head off!" as she quickly ran her hand down her narrow throat. "Cut head off!" Sara knew from her years in captivity that swords were meant for head cuts. It was necessary to reassure the trembling girl that the man brandishing the sword was not real and would not hurt her.[11]

Queen Victoria was impressed by the young princess's "exceptional intelligence", and had the girl, whom she called Sally,[15] raised as her goddaughter in the British middle class.[15][16][17] In 1851, Sara developed a chronic cough, which was attributed to the climate of Great Britain. Her guardians sent her to school in Africa in May of that year, when she was aged eight.[15] She attended the Annie Walsh Memorial School (AWMS) in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The school was founded by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in January 1849 as an institution for young women and girls who were relatives of the boys in the Sierra Leone Grammar School founded in 1845 (at first named CMS Grammar School). In the school register, her name appears only as Sally Bonetta, pupil number 24, June 1851, who married Captain Davies in England in 1862 and was the ward of Queen Victoria. She returned to England in 1855, when she was 12. She was entrusted to the care of Rev. Frederick Scheon and his wife Elizabeth,[18] who lived at Palm Cottage, Canterbury Street Gillingham. The house survives.[19] In January 1862, she was invited to and attended the wedding of Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Alice.[20]

Marriage and children

A portrait of James Pinson Labulo Davies and Sara Forbes Bonetta, photographed in London in 1862 by Camille Silvy

She was later commanded by the Queen to marry Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies at St Nicholas' Church in Brighton, East Sussex, in August 1862, after a period spent in the town preparing for the wedding. During her subsequent time in Brighton, she lived at 17 Clifton Hill in the Montpelier area.[21]

Captain Davies was a Yoruba businessman of considerable wealth, and after their wedding the couple moved back to their native Africa, where they had three children: Victoria Davies (1863), Arthur Davies (1871), and Stella Davies (1873).[22] Sara Forbes Bonetta continued to enjoy such a close relationship with Queen Victoria that she and Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther were the only Lagos indigènes the Royal Navy had standing orders to evacuate in the event of an uprising in Lagos. Victoria Matilda Davies, Bonetta's first daughter, was named after Queen Victoria, who was also her godmother.[23] She married the successful Lagos doctor Dr. John Randle, becoming the stepmother of his son, Nigerian businessman and socialite J. K. Randle.[24] Bonetta's second daughter Stella Davies and Herbert Macaulay, the grandson of Samuel Ajayi Crowther, had a daughter together: Sarah Abigail Idowu Macaulay Adadevoh, named after her maternal grandmother Sara and her paternal grandmother Abigail.[22] A descendant of Sara's through her line was the Ebola heroine Ameyo Adadevoh. Many of Sara's other descendants now live in either Britain or Sierra Leone; a separate branch, the Randle family of Lagos, remains prominent in contemporary Nigeria.[23][25][26]

Death and legacy

Sara Forbes Bonetta died of tuberculosis on 15 August 1880[2] in the city of Funchal, the capital of Madeira Island, a Portuguese island in the Atlantic Ocean. In her memory, her husband erected an over-eight-foot granite obelisk-shaped monument at Ijon in Western Lagos, where he had started a cocoa farm.[27] The inscription on the obelisk reads:[2]




Her grave is number 206 in the British Cemetery of Funchal near the Anglican Holy Trinity Church, Rua Quebra Costas Funchal, Madeira.[28]

A plaque commemorating Forbes Bonetta was placed on Palm Cottage in 2016, as part of the television series Black and British: A Forgotten History.[29]

A newly commissioned portrait of Forbes Bonetta by artist Hannah Uzor went on display at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight in October 2020 as part of an effort by English Heritage to recognise black history in England.[30][31]

Forbes Bonetta was portrayed by Zaris-Angel Hator in the 2017 British ITV television series Victoria.[32]

Forbes Bonetta's life and story formed the basis for the novel Breaking the Maafa Chain by Anni Domingo, published by Jacaranda Books in 2021.

Forbes Bonetta’s life and story also form the basis of the novel, “The Other Princess : A Novel of Queen Victoria’s Goddaughter” by Denny S. Bryce, published by HarperCollins October 3, 2023.

See also


  1. ^ Anim-Addo, Joan (2015). "Bonetta [married name Davies], (Ina) Sarah Forbes [Sally] (C. 1843–1880), Queen Victoria's ward". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/75453. ISBN 978-0-19-861412-8. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ a b c Elebute, Adeyemo (2013). The Life of James Pinson Labulo Davies: A Colossus of Victorian Lagos. Kachifo Limited/Prestige. p. 138. ISBN 9789785205763.
  3. ^ Anim-Addo, Joan (2015). "Bonetta [married name Davies], (Ina) Sarah Forbes [Sally] (C. 1843–1880), Queen Victoria's ward". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/75453. ISBN 978-0-19-861412-8. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ a b Elebute (2013), pp. 41–42
  5. ^ Akinjogbin, I.A. (1967). Dahomey and Its Neighbors: 1708-1818. Cambridge University Press.
  6. ^ Meredith, Martin (2014). The Fortunes of Africa. New York: PublicAffairs. p. 193. ISBN 9781610396356.
  7. ^ "The Story of Africa| BBC World Service". Retrieved 9 December 2023.
  8. ^ Thomas, Hugh (16 April 2013). The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4767-3745-4.
  9. ^ "Black and Asian History and Victorian Britain / Sarah Forbes Bonetta and Family". Royal Collection Trust. Archived from the original on 11 November 2020. Retrieved 9 October 2020.
  10. ^ a b c "Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Queen Victoria's African Protégée". English Heritage. Archived from the original on 4 June 2021. Retrieved 4 June 2021.
  11. ^ a b c d e f Myers, Walter Dean (1999). At her majesty's request : an African princess in Victorian England. Internet Archive. New York : Scholastic Press. ISBN 978-0-590-48669-9.
  12. ^ Kujawinski, Bethany (23 October 2020). "Princess Omoba Aina (Sarah Forbes Bonetta) of Nigeria". Retrieved 10 December 2023.
  13. ^ Picture World: Image, Aesthetics, and Victorian New Media, Rachel Teutolsky, Oxford University Press, 2020, p. 267
  14. ^ a b c Chiba, Akira. "Queen Victoria and the African Princess | MUSEYON BOOKS". Archived from the original on 4 June 2021. Retrieved 4 June 2021.
  15. ^ a b c Rappaport, Helen (2003). Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion. ABC-CLIO Biographical Companions. p. 307. ISBN 9781851093557.
  16. ^ Wasson, Ellis (2009). A History of Modern Britain: 1714 to the Present. John Wiley & Sons. p. 235. ISBN 9781405139359.
  17. ^ Marsh, Jan (19 November 2009). Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800–1900. Lund Humphries, University of Michigan. pp. 62, 86. ISBN 9780853319306. Archived from the original on 23 April 2022. Retrieved 25 November 2016.
  18. ^ Black Presence website, Sara Forbes Bonetta
  19. ^ Jordan, Nicola (16 October 2016). "Queen Victoria adopted my great-great grandma". Kent Online. Archived from the original on 29 May 2018. Retrieved 6 October 2020.
  20. ^ Higgen, Annie C. (1881). "Queen Victoria's African Protégée". Church Missionary Quarterly Token. Church Missionary Society. p. 6. Archived from the original on 19 September 2023. Retrieved 10 October 2020 – via Google Books.
  21. ^ Collis, Rose (2010). The New Encyclopaedia of Brighton: (based on the original by Tim Carder) (1st ed.). Brighton: Brighton & Hove Libraries. ISBN 978-0-9564664-0-2.
  22. ^ a b Elebute (2013), pp. 77–79
  23. ^ a b Braimah, Ayodale (5 June 2014). "Bonetta, Sarah Forbes (1843–1880)". BlackPast. Archived from the original on 19 August 2014. Retrieved 14 August 2014.
  24. ^ Adeloye, Adelola (1974). "Some early Nigerian doctors and their contribution to modern medicine in West Africa". Medical History. 18 (3): 275–93. doi:10.1017/s0025727300019621. PMC 1081580. PMID 4618303. Archived from the original on 21 June 2019. Retrieved 23 May 2015.
  25. ^ "The Nineteenth Century: 1862 - Sarah Forbes Bonetta - The African Princess in Brighton". Brighton and Hove Black History. Brighton and Hove Black History Project. Archived from the original on 8 May 2003.
  26. ^ "Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Sarah Davies) (1843-1880), Goddaughter of Queen Victoria:Image archive". London: National Portrait Gallery. Archived from the original on 30 September 2007. Retrieved 30 September 2006.
  27. ^ Elebute (2013), pp. 111–119
  28. ^ Register of Burials, Church Archives, Holy Trinity Church, Funchal
  29. ^ "Plaque commemorating Sarah Forbes Bonetta who was under the protection of Queen Victoria - BBC". Google Arts & Culture. Archived from the original on 18 April 2022. Retrieved 7 October 2020.
  30. ^ "Sarah Forbes Bonetta: Portrait of Queen Victoria's goddaughter on show". BBC News. 7 October 2020. Archived from the original on 7 October 2020. Retrieved 7 October 2020.
  31. ^ Brown, Mark (6 October 2020). "New portrait of Queen Victoria's African goddaughter unveiled". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 7 October 2020. Retrieved 7 October 2020.
  32. ^ Gordon, Naomi (20 December 2017). "Victoria creator "challenging" perspectives of the era". Digital Spy. Archived from the original on 26 February 2021. Retrieved 7 October 2020.

Further reading

  • Kemi Morgan and Christine Bullock, eds, The making of Good Wives, Good Mothers, Leading Lights of Society. The Story of St Anne's School Ibadan. Y Books & Associated Bookmakers of Nigeria Ltd, 1989. ISBN 9783453246
  • Oyinkan Ade-Ajayi, Heritage Schools Nigeria. Phoenix Visions World Limited, 2020. ISBN 1916032826
  • John Van der Kiste, Sarah Forbes Bonetta: Queen Victoria's African Princess. A & F, 2018. ISBN 978-1719186377 1

The books state that she was the Acting Principal of CMS Female Institution in 1870, the school was founded in 1869, the first principal was Mrs Annie Roper wife of Reverend Roper of CMS Mission Ijaiye, Mrs Forbes Davies was succeeded by Rev & Mrs Henry Townsend

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