Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sally Bonetta Forbes 'The African Princess'

Sally Bonetta Forbes

Born in West Africa in the area once known as ‘the Slave Coast,’ she was captured and became a slave of the King of Dahomey when she was about 5 years old. Two years later, in June 1850, Commodore Forbes of H.M.S. Bonetta arrived in Dahomey to negotiate the suppression of the slave trade and the King of Dahomey presented him with the girl as a present for Queen Victoria. She was brought back to England and given the names Forbes after her rescuer and Bonetta after the name of his ship. [Her surnames are sometimes reversed.] Queen Victoria and Prince Albert received her at Windsor and paid for her education at a CMS school in Freetown, the child quickly becoming proficient in English and showed a natural talent for music.

On 14 August 1862 she married James Labulo Davies, a Sierra Leonean merchant of Victoria
Road, Brighton, at St. Nicholas’s church. The couple returned to Africa, where they settled in Lagos. Queen Victoria was godmother to their first child, named Victoria in her honour.

Mrs Sarah Davies died in Madeira on 24 August 1880.

Miss Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a West African of royal blood, was orphaned in a brutal massacre in her home country at the age of eight.

She was captured and later given to Queen Victoria who, impressed by the girl's natural regal manner and exceptional intelligence, was pleased to give her sanction to be married in St, Nicholas Church in Brighton in August 1862.

The wedding party, which arrived from West Hill Lodge, Brighton in ten carriages and pairs of grays, was made up of White ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with White gentlemen. There were sixteen bridesmaids.

In his journal, Captain Frederick Forbes gave an account of his mission with relation to Miss Bonetta:

"I have only to add a few particulars about my extraordinary present 'the African Child' - one of the captives of this dreadful slave-hunt was this interesting girl"

"It is usual to reserve the best born for the high behest of royalty and the immolation on the tombs of the decease nobility. For one of these ends she has been detained at court for two years, proving, by her not having been sold to slave dealers, that she was of good family".

"She is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and has a great talent for music. She has won the affections, but with few exceptions, of all who have known her. She is far in advance of any white child of her age, in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection".

Kamal Simpson talks to Clare Gittings, Learning Manager at the National Portrait Gallery, about Sarah Forbes Bonetta, who was photographed by Camille Silvy and features in the National Portrait Gallery collection. (source:

In focus: Sarah Forbes Bonetta


  1. she was beautiful. If only she had the chance to live her the life the way she chose.

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