Pioneering Black Women in History: Sarah Forbes Bonetta (National Portrait Gallery Collaboration)

by | Oct 29, 2018

© National Portrait Gallery, London. Images are supplied for one-time use only and must not be archived or stored on a database.

As October draws to a close, so does Black History Month, which we have been pulling as much focus on as possible here at Books That Matter. It is always worth noting that this awareness month is more than a hashtag, more than a Twitter thread, and is a topic we should always be making a conscious effort to school ourselves about. That being said, we are closing off this month with a selection of blog posts about notable Black female pioneers of history that we learned about in the National Portrait Gallery’s publication “100 Pioneering Women”. We were very kindly sent this publication back when Books That Matter was founded, and found inspiration in its pages whilst reading up on hidden figures in British history. So, we have collaborated with the National Portrait Gallery to bring you this blog series to share some fascinating stories of pioneering Black women we should all know more about, starting with Sarah Forbes Bonetta.


Sarah Forbes Bonetta (Davies) was born a princess into west African Yoruba royalty. At the age of four or five, she was captured and taken as a child by King Ghezo of Dahomey in 1848 during a slave hunt attack in which her parents and siblings were brutally killed. She was kept as a slave in the court of King Ghezo, a notorious slave trader, but she was apparently destined to become a human sacrifice. She was later discharged by the King in 1850 to Royal Navy Captain Frederick Forbes who was on a mission to convince the King to abandon slavery and managed to bargain for the girl’s life to convince Ghezo to give her as a “gift” to Queen Victoria. In his journal of his travels, Forbes wrote: “She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.”

On the route to England, she was baptised “Sarah” and given the name of Captain Forbes and his ship “The Bonetta”. This stripped her of her original name Aina, her west African heritage, and her identity.


Forbes detailed that he was very fond of Sarah, often nicknaming her “Sally”, and was impressed by her quick learning and talent for music, writing that she was a “perfect genuis”, and had an amazing strength of mind and affection. Queen Victoria was impressed by young Sarah’s intelligence and dignity, and became her protector, funding her education and giving her a regular allowance to ensure her welfare and future.


Sarah was highly regarded in the Royal household and social circles, and she appeared at many social events. At one such event, James Pinson Labulo Davies, a Yorubian merchant prominent in missionary circles, saw her and declared an interest in marrying her. The match was considered a suitable one and Sarah was encouraged to accept. Davies was also a man with Yoruba roots, he was more than a decade older than her, and already widowed. She initially turned him down, but the Queen approved the match and Sarah had no financial independence if she refused, so the marriage went ahead.


In 1862, the couple married in a lavish wedding at St Nicolas Church in Brighton, a wedding featuring 10 carriages, and guests of all races and backgrounds described as a congregation of “White ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with White gentlemen”.. Luckily, the marriage was happier than Sarah had initially expected, and the newlyweds moved to Africa together. Sarah was baptised at a church in the town of Badagry, a former slave port, and they settled in Lagos, where her husband became a member of the Legislative Council from 1872-74, in which year Lagos Colony was for a time amalgamated into the Gold Coast). They named their first child Victoria with the Queen’s blessing. Queen Victoria referred to both Sarah and her daughter as her Godchildren in her diaries. The couple went on to have two other children, Arthur and Stella. Together with her daughter Victoria, Sarah made a trip back to England in 1867 when Victoria was five, and the Queen fell in love with her. Unfortunately, this was Sarah’s last trip to see the Queen. She had been sick for many years, and in 1880 she died of tuberculosis on the island of Madeira at the age of 37.

Women in History-Sarah Forbes Bonetta

© National Portrait Gallery, London. Images are supplied for one-time use only and must not be archived or stored on a database.

Egbado clan to the Windsor Palace to Sierra LeoneSarah’s journey took her from the brutality of the slave hunts in Dahomey, away from the heart of her family, to the gates of Windsor Palace on 9th November 1850, where she first met the Queen. The monarch (who felt herself opposed to racism) recognised her royal blood and honoured her title by calling her a princess. Sarah never actually moved in as part of the royal household, though; instead, the Queen found guardians to look after her, and paid for her education and upbringing. This uprooting from West Africa meant in early 1851 she developed a chronic cough attributed to her climate of England. So, the Queen had her sent to Sierra Leone where it was hoped that the warmer temperatures would improve her health. From the ages of eight until twelve, she lived unhappily in Sierra Leone, attending the Church Missionary Society school where, despite her unhappiness, she excelled academically. Upon her return, arranged by Queen Victoria in 1855, she was sent to live with a middle-class Schoen family in Gillingham. Sarah remained in touch with the Queen, even attending her daughter’s wedding in 1862.

English Adaptation and Representation

Sarah’s story was recently broadcast on British television via the Christmas edition of “Victoria” in 2017, and her biography was also featured in the BBC 2 Programme “Black and British” by David Olusoga. Her history was written about in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, and she details that Sarah’s birth name of Aina means “difficult birth”, a name which was given to a child born with the umbilical cord around their neck.

Representation? In terms of the representation of Sarah, and the image perpetuated of her long after her death; it is clear that despite the life she was given, she had little agency. Captain Forbes wrote in his journal that: “Of her own history she has only a confused idea. Her parents were decapitated; her brother and sisters she knows not what their fate might have been.” However, he writes comparatively that “she is far in advance of ant white child of her age, in aptness of learning, and strength of mind”. The question remains, why don’t we learn about Sarah at school, and why do we not talk about her now? We can, we must, and we will.


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