Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a
young Yoruba princess who was rescued by a British naval captain moments before
being slaughtered in a ritual sacrifice
by a Dahoman king later became a protégée
of Britain's Queen Victoria who sent her to school at Freetown's Annie Walsh
In 1849, on a mission to
eradicate slavery in West Africa, Capt. Frederick E. Forbes and the crew of the
Bonetta, were guests of Gezo, a
Dahoman king whose notoriety for slave raiding and brutality was made obvious by
the considerable number of human skulls topping his palace walls. Arriving just
in time for an annual Dahoman festival called the "watering of the graves," the
captain and his men were forced to witness the ritual slaughter of human
beings. After forceful protestations by Capt.
Forbes at the decapitations of several victims, King Gezo agreed to spare the
life of a little girl and instead presented her to the captain as a gift to the
"Queen of the whites." Capt. Forbes named the young Yoruba girl Sarah Forbes
Bonetta, after his ship and himself. He returned with her to England.
Through Capt. Forbe's
reports to his superiors, Sarah's story reached Queen Victoria who immediately ordered
her brought to Windsor Castle. Enthralled by the little girl's story, Queen
Victoria took a special interest in Sarah's welfare. Sarah's fortunes had gone
full circle, from Yoruba princess to slave girl facing death to a black
princess at the Court of St. James. She
became the beneficiary of a private education and as a regular at the royal
household was a playmate of Queen Victoria's daughters.
But Sarah's health became an
obstacle to a happy life in Britain. Genuinely believing that black people were
better off in Africa, Queen Victoria arranged through the Rev. Henry Venn, head
of the Church Missionary Society, to send Sarah to Sierra Leone in the summer
Now an international
celebrity due to her relationship with Queen Victoria and her role in Capt.
Forbes book Dahomey and the Dahomans,
Sarah was enrolled at the Female Institution (later Annie Walsh School) along
with other Liberated African girls including Abigail Crowther, daughter of the
Rev. Samuel Ajayi Crowther. For four years in Freetown, Sarah received special attention
from Julia Sass and other European teachers at the Female Institution. Freetown
was a magnet for distinguished visitors whose itinerary always included a stop
at the Female Institution where they were introduced to Sarah. James P. L.
Davies, a businessman and missionary much older than Sarah was one such visitor.
Sarah remained a favorite of
the royal family when Queen Victoria ordered her abrupt return to Britain in
June 1855. While many Britons lived in
poverty, Sarah enjoyed the good life as an adopted member of the upper strata of
Until widowed James P.L.
Davies, the older gentleman she met earlier in Freetown, endorsed by the queen
because of a character recommendation by Rev. Venn proposed marriage. When
Sarah demurred, Queen Victoria withdrew all privileges and banished her to a
life of poverty in the fishing village of Brighton. Sarah eventually relented
and agreed to marry Mr. Davies.
After a wedding fit for
royalty in August 1862, the couple returned to Freetown where Mr. Davies ran a
business while Mrs. Davies taught at the Female Institution. Their first child,
named after Queen Victoria became a goddaughter of the monarch.
Sarah Forbes Bonetta died in
August 1880 in Funchal, Madeira where she had gone to recover from what is
today known as tuberculosis.