Did Queen Victoria Really Adopt an Orphaned African Princess?

Alamy
Alamy

In 1850, a young naval captain named Frederick E. Forbes arrived in the African kingdom of Dahomey (today’s Benin) to see the powerful monarch King Ghezo on an antislavery mission from the British Empire. As was standard for meetings of dignitaries, gifts were exchanged. Among those given to Forbes—as a formal offering to Queen Victoria—was a 7-year-old girl.

Two years earlier, the girl’s life had been upended. Her village of Okeadan (in modern-day Nigeria) was raided, her family was killed, and she was captured as a slave. Many sources suggest that the girl was the daughter of a chief or of royal lineage, but Forbes wrote that of "her own history she has only a confused idea"; he speculated that she was "of a good family" because she had been kept alive at court and not sold. With Forbes's arrival in the court of King Ghezo, her fortunes—as dramatized in the PBS series Victoria—unexpectedly changed.

Forbes was part of the Royal Navy's antislavery squadron that patrolled and captured slave ships off West Africa. Though Great Britain had been a prominent force in the transatlantic slave trade, by 1838, under Queen Victoria, parliament had abolished slavery throughout the empire.

It may seem ironic that a man opposed to slavery would accept a human as a gift, which Walter Dean Myers, in his young reader book At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England, calls “a present from the King of the blacks to the Queen of the whites.” But as Forbes wrote in his journals, to refuse her would be to sign "her death-warrant.” He believed that, "in consideration of the nature of the service I had performed, the government would consider her as the property of the Crown," so the government would take responsibility for her care. And, he was immediately impressed by her brightness and charm, calling her "a perfect genius.” He renamed and baptized the young girl after himself and his ship, the HMS Bonetta. From that moment forward, she was known as Sarah Forbes Bonetta.


Sarah Forbes Bonetta, at about age 7, in a color plate from Frederick E. Forbes's Dahomey and the Dahomans, 1851
Dahomey and the Dahomans // Public Domain

Queen Victoria got word of Sarah's rescue, and on November 9, 1850, Forbes presented Sarah to the Queen at Windsor Castle. Both Forbes and the Queen likely saw a purpose for her in England’s promotion of Christianity in Africa. "God grant she may be taught to consider that her duty leads her to rescue those who have not had the advantages of education from the mysterious ways of their ancestors,” Forbes wrote hopefully.

In her essay in Black Victorians/Black Victoriana, Joan Anim-Addo suggests that Queen Victoria’s decision to pay for Sarah's education and guide her upbringing "took into careful consideration Forbes's projection of a future for Sally in missionary circles, particularly in relation to Sierra Leone.” In the 1800s, the Sierra Leone Colony was part of the British Empire, and administered by Anglican missionaries with the purpose of creating a home for freed slaves.

Sarah stayed for a time with Forbes's family and visited the Queen regularly. In her diary, Queen Victoria wrote fondly of Sarah, who she sometimes called Sally. “After luncheon Sally Bonita, the little African girl came with Mrs Phipps, & showed me some of her work. This is the 4th time I have seen the poor child, who is really an intelligent little thing.”

The captain died in 1851, and Sarah, then about 8 years old, was sent to a missionary school in Freetown, Sierra Leone in May of that year. The school forbade students from wearing African dress and speaking their native languages, and promoted English culture as a path to civilization. Sarah was a model student, but in 1855, she returned to England. According to Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion, Sarah was unhappy at the school, and the Queen agreed to her departure.

Map of Africa in 1840
Africa circa 1840
Olney's School Geography, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Her royal sponsor placed her with a new family, the Schoens, longtime missionaries in Africa who now lived at Palm Cottage in Gillingham, Kent, about 35 miles east of London. Sarah seemed to get along well with her new guardians—in her letters she addressed Mrs. Schoen as “Mama.” One of her letters, reprinted in Myers’s At Her Majesty’s Request, was sent from Windsor Castle and hints at the Queen’s care for her well-being: "Was it not kind of the Queen—she sent to know if I had arrived last night as she wishes to see me in the morning.”

The Schoens’ daughter Annie later remembered how Sarah "was very bright and clever, fond of study, and had a great talent for music, and soon became as accomplished as any English girl of her age.” Furthermore, Queen Victoria "gave constant proofs of her kindly interest in her," including invitations to Windsor at holidays, and gifts like an engraved gold bracelet. In an 1856 photograph, taken when she was around 13, Sarah is posed like an English lady, a sewing basket at her elbow, and a bracelet, perhaps the one from the Queen, on her wrist.

Despite living with the English elite, and receiving a lady’s education, Sarah had little control over her destiny. And like most women of the 19th century, she was expected to marry when she reached the proper age. For Sarah, that age was 19. A suitor was found: Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a Sierra Leone-born British naval officer. His own parents, of Yoruba descent, had been freed from slave ships by the Royal Navy, and Davies had attended the same missionary school as Sarah. After retiring from the navy, he became a successful merchant vessel captain and businessman. They seemed to have a lot in common, but Sarah did not love him. "I know that the generality of people would say he is rich & your marrying him would at once make you independent," Sarah wrote to Mrs. Schoen, "and I say, 'Am I to barter my peace of mind for money?' No—never!”

Yet she could not disobey the Queen, and in August 1862, in St. Nicolas Church in Brighton, she married Davies. In a series of 1862 carte de visite photographs now at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Sarah poses in her voluminous white wedding dress with her new husband. Her lively eyes stare directly at the viewer in one shot, with a gaze that seems almost defiant.

The couple moved to Sierra Leone, and then to Lagos. With royal permission, they named their daughter, born in 1863, after Queen Victoria, who became her godmother. The Queen presented baby Victoria with a gold cup, salver, knife, fork, and spoon engraved with an affectionate message: "To Victoria Davies, from her godmother, Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, 1863.”

Sarah and James had two more children, but Sarah’s health began to wane. She went to Madeira, a Portuguese island, to seek a cure for tuberculosis. Sadly, she died in 1880 at just 37 years old.

Upon hearing that news, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that she would give her goddaughter Victoria Matilda Davies an annuity of £40 (which has the economic power of £63,000 today).

Many mysteries remain about Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s life. In her letters, she wrote only of current events. She never reflected on her childhood, the loss of her family, or her dramatic rescue. She also never mentioned royal blood, though the popular notion of Sarah as an “African princess” endures.

Queen Victoria’s care for Sarah may have been partly a moral mission, fueled by the desire to spread Christian righteousness in the British colonies. Yet in an era when slavery was still practiced in the United States, her support and care for Sarah and her family was a powerful statement of tolerance.

10,000 People Gathered at Stonehenge to Welcome the Summer Solstice

Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images
Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons to welcome the start of summer. Today, people visiting Stonehenge took that celebration to a whole new level.

The BBC reported that an estimated 10,000 people made the pilgrimage to the 5000-year-old site to partake in summer solstice festivities. "Stonehenge was built to align with the Sun, and to Neolithic people, the skies were arguably as important as the surrounding landscape," Susan Greaney, a senior historian at English Heritage, said in a statement. "At solstice we remember the changing daylight hours, but the changing seasons, the cycles of the Moon, and movements of the Sun are likely to have underpinned many practical spiritual aspects of Neolithic life."

These spiritual aspects are just one of the many fascinating facts about the summer solstice; the day is an extremely old calendar event recognized by ancient cultures across the globe. They include the Druids and other pagans, whose tradition of observing the solstice at Stonehenge has long been upheld by modern revelers.

Scientifically speaking, Stonehenge is an optimal viewing place for the solstice due to its structure. According to TIME, the site’s architects appeared to have kept both the summer and winter solstices in mind during its construction, as the positions of the stones are specifically tuned to complement the sky on both occasions.

The solstices were sacred to the pagans, whose modern-day followers continue to honor their rituals. Pagans in particular refer to the day as Litha, and mark it with activities such as meditation, fire rites, and outdoor yoga.

“What you’re celebrating on a mystical level is that you’re looking at light at its strongest," Frank Somers, a member of the Amesbury and Stonehenge Druids, said in 2014. "It represents things like the triumph of the king, the power of light over darkness, and just life—life at its fullest."

Those who were unable to make the journey can head over to the Stonehenge Skyscape project's website, where English Heritage’s interactive live feed fully captured the experience.

Tourists Are Picking Apart Britain's Oldest Tree

Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Fortingall Yew in the Fortingall churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland has seen a lot. Since it started growing at least 2000 years ago, it's been present for the Roman settlement of Scotland, the shift from paganism to Christianity, and the country's induction into the United Kingdom. But after standing for millennia, the ancient tree is facing its greatest threat yet. Tourists are removing twigs and branches from the tree to take home as souvenirs, and the tree is under so much stress that it's spontaneously changing sexes, Atlas Obscura reports.

Because of how the tree grows, it's hard to date the Fortingall Yew precisely. It comprises several separate trunks that have hollowed out over the years, making it easier for the tree to support itself in its old age. Based on historical measurements and 19th-century ring counts, the yew has been around for at least two millennia, but it could date back as far as 5000 years. That makes it the oldest tree in Britain and one of the oldest living things in Europe.

That impressive title means the tree gets a lot of visitors, not all of whom are concerned with extending its lifespan even longer. A stone and iron wall built in the Victorian era encloses the tree, but that hasn't stopped people from climbing over it to break off pieces or leave behind keepsakes like beads and ribbons.

As the abuse adds up, the tree has responded in concerning ways. It sprouted red berries this spring, a sign that the tree is transitioning to a different sex for the first time in its life. Yew trees are either male or female, and sex changes among the species are incredibly rare and misunderstood. Some botanists believe it's a reaction to stress. The change may be a survival mechanism intended to increase the specimen's chances of reproducing.

Scientists aren't sure why this particular yew, which was formerly male, sprouted berries on its upper branches, an exclusively female characteristic, but they've collected the berries to study them. The seeds from the berries will be preserved as part of a project to protect the genetic diversity of yew trees across the globe.

In the mean time, caretakers of the Fortingall Yew are imploring visitors to be respectful of the tree and keep their hands to themselves.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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