Sarah Forbes Bonetta: The African Princess Who Became Queen Victoria’s Goddaughter

Sarah Forbes Bonetta was born in 1843 in what’s now southwest Nigeria as a princess in the Egbado clan of the Yoruba people. Her parents’ and siblings’ names are lost to history, because they were killed in an 1847 slavey raid led by King Gezo of Dahomey, an infamous slave trading sovereign in Western Africa. Sarah was captured in this raid and taken captive. She remained in King Gezo’s court rather than be traded and sold as a slave abroad.

Britain had abolished the slave trade throughout its empire in 1833, and the West Africa Squadron’s mission was to dismantle slavery and slave trading by convincing local leaders to turn away from it as a source of income and stopping Spanish and French slave ships. In 1849, British Commander Frederick Forbes, a captain in the West Africa Squadron (WAS), arrived in Dahomey as a part of this effort to convince King Gezo to end his slave raiding practices. Here, Forbes noticed Sarah and asked King Gezo to give the young girl as a gift to Queen Victoria. Fobres proclaimed, “She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.” Historical records aren’t clear if King Gezo gave Sarah willingly or if Forbes bargained for her. 

A young Sarah, a lithograph from a drawing by Frederick Forbes. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Sarah remained with Forbes for the next year while he travelled throughout West Africa on his mission for the WAS. She was baptized and given the English name Sarah Forbes Bonetta. She was gifted in learning, with Forbes writing, “She is far in advance of any white child of her age in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection…” 

Soon, Sarah found herself in England. She was taken to Windsor Castle and presented before Queen Victoria on November 9th, 1850. Queen Victoria was impressed with Sarah’s intelligence and described her as such in a journal entry:

"Capt: Forbes saved her life, by asking for her as a present. … She is 7 years old, sharp & intelligent, & speaks English. She was dressed as any other girl. When her bonnet was taken off, her little black woolly head & big earrings gave her the true negro type."

After her presentation at Windsor Castle, Queen Victoria took it upon herself to provide for Sarah. She also became Sarah’s godmother. For a short time, Queen Victoria placed Sarah under the responsibility of the Schoen family in Palm Cottage, before moving her to the Church Missionary Society school in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Queen Victoria’s intention with this placement was to train Sarah to become a missionary to one day convert Africans in Sierra Leone to Christianity. Queen Victoria sent books and presents to Sarah to encourage her learning. However, Sarah was unhappy with her circumstances, leading Queen Victoria to recall her to England in 1855. 

Sarah in 1862. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In January 1862, Sarah was a guest at the wedding of Queen Victoria’s eldest child, Princess Victoria. Sarah, herself, found a husband in 31 year-old James Pinson Labulo Davies, a businessman from Sierra Leone. He was also of Yoruba heritage, his own parents having been freed from slavery. Sarah revealed her feelings to Mrs. Shoen, her once adoptive parent:

"Others would say ‘He is a good man & though you don’t care about him now, will soon learn to love him.’ That, I believe, I never could do. I know that the generality of people would say he is rich & your marrying him would at once make you independent, and I say ‘Am I to barter my peace of mind for money?’ No – never!"

Sarah’s feelings must have gradually changed over time. After gaining the Queen’s permission, they married on August 14th, 1862 at St. Nicholas Church in Brighton, England. Sarah’s wedding was elaborate, with ten carriages riding to the church and sixteen bridesmaids in her party.

James Davies and Sarah Forbes Bonetta photographed in London in 1862. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Shortly after the wedding. the couple moved to Sierra Leone. James continued his work there, and Sarah took up teaching in a Freetown school. The couple soon welcomed their first child, a daughter that Sarah named after the Queen. Queen Victoria also became baby Victoria’s godmother. Sarah and her daughter returned to England in 1867 to visit Queen Victoria.

By the end of the 1860s, Sarah was suffering from tuberculosis. She had two more children with James before her condition worsened, and she died on August 15, 1880. She was 37. Queen Victoria continued to care for her goddaughter, Victoria, by providing her with an education and an annual pension. Young Victoria continued to be a welcomed guest by the royal family in England. Today, several of Sarah’s descendants live around Lagos, Nigeria.

Further Readings:

African princess and Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880) by Amy Zamarripa Solis

The African Princess: Sarah Forbes Bonetta by Camille Silvy

HRP Handover: Zeinab Badawi on Sarah Forbes Bonetta and “contested history” by Royal Historical Palaces

The Little-Known Story of Queen Victoria’s Black Goddaughter by Isis Davis-Marks

Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880) on

Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880) on



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