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.

21 Other Royal Babies Born In The Last 20 Years

Chris Jackson, Getty Images
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

by Kenny Hemphill

In the early morning hours of Monday, October 15, Kensington Palace released an official statement that "Their Royal Highnesses The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are very pleased to announce that The Duchess of Sussex is expecting a baby in the Spring of 2019." Their child will become seventh in line to throne—just behind his or her dad, who has been pushed down the line in recent years with the arrival of Princes George and Louis and Princess Charlotte. But William's children and Harry's baby-to-be aren't the only pint-sized descendants of Queen Elizabeth II to be born in the past 20 years. Here are 21 more of them.

1. ARTHUR CHATTO

Arthur Robert Nathaniel Chatto, who turned 19 years old February 5, is the younger son of Lady Sarah and Daniel Chatto. He is 24th in the line of succession—and has been raising some royal eyebrows with his penchant for Instagram selfies.

2. CHARLES ARMSTRONG-JONES, VISCOUNT LINLEY

The grandson of Lord Snowden and Princess Margaret, and son of the 2nd Earl and Countess of Snowdon, Charles—who was born on July 1, 1999—is the heir apparent to the Earldom of Snowdon.

3. LADY MARGARITA ARMSTRONG-JONES

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II (R) speaks to Serena Armstrong-Jones, Countess of Snowdon (L), David Armstrong-Jones (2L), 2nd Earl of Snowdon, and Lady Margarita Armstrong-Jones (2R).
JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

Born on May 14, 2002, Lady Margarita is sister to Charles Armstrong-Jones, and great-niece to the Queen. She's 21st in line to the throne.

4. LADY LOUISE WINDSOR

Lady Louise Windsor is the eldest child and only daughter of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex. She was born on November 8, 2003 and is 12th in line for the throne.

5. ELOISE TAYLOR

The third child of Lady Helen and Timothy Taylor, Eloise Olivia Katherine Taylor was born on March 2, 2003 and is 46th in line for the throne.

6. ESTELLA TAYLOR

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge chats to Estella Taylor on the balcony during Trooping the Colour - Queen Elizabeth II's Birthday Parade, at The Royal Horseguards on June 14, 2014 in London, England
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Eloise's younger sister, Estella Olga Elizabeth Taylor, was born on December 21, 2004. She is the youngest of the four Taylor children and is 47th in succession.

7. JAMES, VISCOUNT SEVERN

The younger child of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex, James Alexander Philip Theo Mountbatten-Windsor—or Viscount Severn—was born on December 17, 2007 and is 11th in line for the throne.

8. ALBERT WINDSOR

Albert Louis Philip Edward Windsor, born September 22, 2007, is notable for being the first royal baby to be baptized a Catholic since 1688. He is the son of Lord and Lady Nicholas Windsor, and grandson of the Duke and Duchess of Kent. According to the Act of Settlement, which was passed in 1701, being baptized Catholic would automatically exclude a potential royal from the line of succession. But there was some controversy surrounding this when, up until 2015, the Royal Family website included Albert.

9. XAN WINDSOR

Lord Culloden, Xan Richard Anders Windsor, is son to the Earl of Ulster and Claire Booth, and grandson of the Duke of Gloucester. He was born on March 2, 2007 and is 28th in succession.

10. LEOPOLD WINDSOR

Like his older brother Albert, Leopold Windsor—who was born on September 8, 2009—is not in line to the throne, by virtue of being baptized a Roman Catholic (though he, too, was listed on the Royal Family's website for a time).

11. SAVANNAH PHILLIPS

Autumn Phillips, Isla Phillips, Peter Philips and Savannah Phillips attend Christmas Day Church service at Church of St Mary Magdalene on December 25, 2017 in King's Lynn, England
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Savannah Anne Kathleen Phillips, the Queen's first great-grandchild, was born on December 29, 2010 to Peter Phillips, son of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips, and Autumn Kelly. She is 15th in line for the throne.

12. SENNA LEWIS

Senna Kowhai Lewis, who was born on June 2, 2010, is the daughter of Gary and Lady Davina Lewis, elder daughter of Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester. She was a beneficiary of the Succession to the Crown Act 2013, which abolished the practice of giving sons precedence over daughters in the line of succession, regardless of when they are born. As a result, she is 31st in succession.

13. LYLA GILMAN

Daughter of Lady Rose and George Gilman, and granddaughter of Prince Richard, 2nd Duke of Gloucester, Lyla Beatrix Christabel Gilman was born on May 30, 2010. She is 34nd in succession.

14. COSIMA WINDSOR

Lady Cosima Rose Alexandra Windsor was born on May 20, 2010. She is sister to Lord Culloden, daughter of the Earl of Ulster and Claire Booth, and granddaughter to the Duke of Gloucester. She's 29th in line for the throne.

15. RUFUS GILMAN

Lyla Gilman's brother, Rufus, born in October 2012, is 35rd in line for the throne.

16. TĀNE LEWIS

Tāne Mahuta Lewis, Senna's brother, was named after a giant kauri tree in the Waipoua Forest of the Northland region of New Zealand. He was born on May 25, 2012 and is 32nd in line for the throne, following the Succession to the Crown Act 2013.

17. ISLA PHILLIPS

Princess Anne, Princess Royal, Isla Phillips and Peter Phillips attend a Christmas Day church service
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Peter and Autumn Phillips's second and youngest daughter, Isla Elizabeth Phillips, was born on March 29, 2012 and is 16th in succession.

18. MAUD WINDSOR

Maud Elizabeth Daphne Marina Windsor, the daughter of Lord Frederick and Lady Sophie of Windsor and granddaughter of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, was born on August 15, 2013 and is 50th in line for the throne.

19. LOUIS WINDSOR

Louis Arthur Nicholas Felix Windsor, who was born on May 27, 2014, is the youngest child of Lord and Lady Nicholas Windsor, and brother of Leopold and Albert. As he was baptized into the Roman Catholic church, he's not in line to the throne.

20. MIA GRACE TINDALL

Mike Tindall, Zara Tindall and their daughter Mia Tindall pose for a photograph during day three of The Big Feastival at Alex James' Farm on August 28, 2016 in Kingham, Oxfordshire.
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Daughter of Zara Phillips and her husband, former England rugby player Mike Tindall, Mia Grace Tindall was born on January 17, 2014 and is 18th in the line of succession.

21. ISABELLA WINDSOR

Isabella Alexandra May, the second and youngest daughter of Lord Frederick and Lady Sophie of Windsor, was the last addition to the royal family. In July 2016, she was christened at Kensington Palace wearing the same gown worn by both Prince George and Princess Charlotte (it's a replica of the one that Queen Victoria's children wore). Looking on was celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who is one of Isabella's godparents.

10 Ways to Identify a Witch

Baker, Joseph E., Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Baker, Joseph E., Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As we know today, some of the measures taken during the Salem Witch Trials to "prove" whether a person was guilty or innocent were ludicrous. But in case you'd like to employ some of them for yourself, here are 10 ways to identify a witch, according to those running the Salem Witch Trials.

1. MAKE A WITCH CAKE.

What's a witch cake, you ask? It's definitely something you don't want to eat. You take the urine of the people who are thought to be under the spell of the witch in question, mix it with rye meal, and make a little patty. Then you feed the patty to a dog. Because some of the powers the witch used to cast a spell on the afflicted people were in their urine, when the dog eats the cake, it will hurt the witch, and she'll cry out in agony.

2. WEIGH THEM AGAINST A STACK OF BIBLES.

If the suspected witch is heavier or lighter than the stack of Bibles, then clearly she's guilty of evil-doing. If the scales balance out, she's in the clear. You can imagine that a perfect balance didn't happen often.

3. CHECK FOR MOLES, BIRTHMARKS, SCARS, OR EXTRA NIPPLES.

These are all Marks of the Devil. But if you need even more proof, try pricking the Devil's Mark with a blade. If it doesn't bleed or hurt when it's pricked, you've definitely got a witch on your hands. During the Salem Witch Trials, some unscrupulous witch-hunters actually used knives with retractable blades, so of course when they appeared to puncture the Mark, nothing happened.

4. OBSERVE THEM TALKING TO THEMSELVES.

During the Witch Trials, one accused woman, Sarah Good, was damned partially based on the fact that she was sometimes seen muttering to herself, and sometimes this even happened when she was leaving people's houses. Her accusers knew she was casting spells on people, even though Good claimed she was just reciting the commandments or a particular psalm. Her claims weren't enough to save her, because she was hanged on July 19, 1692.

5. ASK THEM TO RECITE THE LORD'S PRAYER.

If they don't, they're guilty. If they do, they're guilty too. George Burroughs, the only minister to be executed during the Trials, ran across this problem. He was standing at the gallows to be executed when he recited the Lord's Prayer to prove his innocence—it was believed that a witch (or warlock, in this case) would be unable to utter the holy words. People were momentarily convinced that the jury had wronged him, until a minister named Cotton Mather told the crowd that the Devil allowed George Burroughs to say that prayer to make it seem as if he was innocent. Ahhh, of course. With Satan himself apparently working right through him, Burroughs' fate was sealed, and he was hanged moments later.

6. ASK A HARD-OF-HEARING ELDERLY WOMAN IF SHE'S GUILTY.

If she doesn't respond, she's definitely a witch. This happened to 71-year-old Rebecca Nurse. She was known to be a very pious woman, and most people in the community were hesitant to accuse her or believe the pointing fingers that were. In fact, she was found not guilty during her first trial. But when there were more outbursts from young girls who said they were being tormented by a witch, Nurse was reconsidered. When another prisoner claimed that "she was one of us" during the trial and Nurse failed to respond, she was immediately assumed guilty and hanged.

7. NOTE THE NUMBER OF PETS SHE HAS.

A woman who has pets—or even says hello to the neighbor's cat—is surely using that animal as a familiar. In fact, if a fly or a rat entered a woman's cell while she was awaiting trial, it was assumed that the witch had used her powers to summon a familiar to do her bidding.

8. TAKE THEIR SARCASTIC COMMENTS SERIOUSLY.

John Willard was the constable in Salem responsible for bring the accused to court. After bringing in so many people, including those who were known for their church-going ways and elderly woman who barely understood what they were being accused of, Willard began to doubt how real these accusations really were. In May 1692, he finally put his foot down and declared that he would no longer take part in any arrests, sarcastically saying, "Hang them all, they're all witches." Willard was immediately accused of witchcraft himself, stood trial, was found guilty, and was executed just three months after his sarcastic comment.

9. ASK THEM IF THEY'VE HAD DREAMS ABOUT NATIVE AMERICANS.

Sarah Osborne denied all witchcraft accusations that were thrown her way. Her downfall was when she admitted she had recurring dreams that an Indian would seize her by the hair and drag her out of her house. Apparently that was enough to convince the village she was likely casting spells on them. However, Osborne ended up dying while being held captive and never stood trial for her "crimes."

10. CHECK TO SEE HOW MANY TIMES THEY'VE BEEN MARRIED.

At least a couple of the women tried for witchcraft were married two or more times and were accused of killing their former husbands ("bewitching" them to death) or evilly seducing them.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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