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Queen Victoria’s Black Princess

How the Story of Princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta Signaled the Doom of the Confederacy

When readers in the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia during the American Civil War scanned the front page of the Richmond Daily Dispatch of Monday, January 25, 1864, an article that must have been disquieting, if not astounding, met their eyes.

The article was a reprint from an Irish paper, and for the Dispatch's readership, its headline must have been an attention-grabber:

Queen Victoria godmother for a “Colored” Baby.

The Dublin Freeman of the 20th ult. has the following paragraph about British royalty:

Our readers will probably remember the marriage at St. John’s Church, Chatham, a short time since, of the young African Princess, Miss Bonetta Forbes, the protégé of the Queen, who was brought to this country by Captain Forbes, in her Majesty’s ship Bonetta, from the coast of Africa, and educated by the Rev. J. Schon, chaplain of Melville Hospital, Chatham, at the expense of her Majesty, who always took the most lively interest in her welfare, and occasionally had her at court.--On the occasion of the marriage of the young princess to J. Davis, Esq., a colored West India merchant, who has since settled on the Gold Coast, the Queen took the most lively interest in the event, and made Miss Forbes several handsome wedding presents, all of which were fully described at the time. Intelligence has now been received of a further mark of favor conferred on Mrs. Davis, who has just given birth so a daughter, to whom her Majesty stood godmother by proxy. At the same time the Queen has presented to her godchild a beautiful gold cup, with a salver, knife, fork and spoon, of the same metal, as a baptismal present. The cup and salver bear the following inscription:-- “To Victoria Davis, from her godmother, Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, 1863.”

To a Southern slave-holding populace fully indoctrinated with the belief that any kind of equality between white and black was an impossibility, the idea of the Queen of England having chosen to be the active, and even affectionate godmother to a black African must have seemed bizarre.

Who was this African princess who received such great favor from the English monarch?

She was Sarah Forbes Bonetta (the order of her names was often reversed), and was herself a victim of the slave trade. Named for the British sea captain and his ship that rescued her from captivity and death, she was a West African of royal blood.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta in 1862

Sarah Forbes Bonetta in 1862

A Captured Princess Who Almost Became a Human Sacrifice

Sarah was born to a clan of the Yoruba in what is now Nigeria, and was orphaned in 1848 at the age of about five when her people were massacred by slave-raiders from neighboring Dahomey. Because she was of high birth, instead of selling her to slave traders, the Dahomeans presented her to their king, Gezo. The king held her as a royal captive, to eventually be offered as a human sacrifice.

But two years after her capture, in June, 1850, an event occurred that reshaped her life completely. A British ship, H.M.S. Bonetta, with her captain, Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy, arrived in Dahomey to negotiate an end to the slave trade. When he learned of the intended fate of the young captive, Captain Forbes arranged with King Gezo to give her to Queen Victoria. As Forbes later put it, “She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.”

Captain Forbes was extremely impressed with this extraordinary child. He wrote of her in his journal:

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 deceased 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.

Queen Victoria, too, was impressed by the child’s intelligence. She, along with Prince Albert, received Sarah at Windsor Castle, and arranged for her to live and be educated in several upper middle-class English households. Initially, the English climate seemed to cause frequent health problems for Sarah (familiarly known as Sally), and the Queen sent her to be educated at a missionary school in Sierra Leone. But in 1855 Victoria sent a letter to the school requiring them “to send Sally Forbes Bonetta at once to England by Her Majesty’s command.”

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Portrait by Merrick & Co. of Brighton around the time of Sarah's marriage in 1862.

Portrait by Merrick & Co. of Brighton around the time of Sarah's marriage in 1862.

A Favorite of the Queen

There seems to have been a good deal of affection between the English monarch and the African princess. Victoria became Sarah’s godmother, and paid all her expenses. Sarah was a frequent visitor with the Royal Family at Windsor, and became a particular companion of Princess Alice. The two are said to have often ridden together around the castle grounds in a pony cart.

Eventually, it was decided that it was time for Sarah to marry, and, following royal tradition, Buckingham Palace arranged a match for her. The chosen suitor was recent widower James Davies, a 31 year old West African businessman and missionary who was then living in England. Initially, the proposed match was not at all to Sarah’s liking. But life as a royal protégé being what it was, the marriage took place on August 14, 1862.

Sarah and Husband

Sarah and Husband

Once married, Sarah is said to have come to deeply love her husband, and she soon presented him with a daughter (as well as two later children). When Sarah wrote to Victoria for permission to name her daughter after the Queen, not only did Victoria give permission, she offered to be godmother to the child. Victoria Davies, like her mother, became a favorite of the Queen, and was one of the last visitors received by Victoria before the monarch’s death in 1901.

Sarah herself, never strong, developed a cough that wouldn’t go away. She was sent to the island of Madeira in the hope that the pure and dry air would help her to recover. It did not. She died there of tuberculosis in 1880 at about 37 years of age.

The Lesson for the Confederacy

This is the background to the story readers of the Richmond Dispatch were confronted with on that Monday morning, early in the new year of 1864. It was commonly understood that this was to be the make-or-break year for the Southern Confederacy. Some still firmly believed that if the South ever seemed to be on the brink of ultimate defeat, Britain would step in on the side of the Confederates to prevent a reunited American nation from becoming the colossus of the world.

But those who read this article, and were perceptive enough to understand its real meaning, would have realized that the hope of British intervention, if it ever really existed, was gone forever.

It was simply not possible that a monarch who had willingly become a loving godmother and life-long sponsor to a black African rescued from the clutches of slave traders, would not do all in her considerable power to prevent her nation from becoming the means by which American slavery was preserved.

Comments

Anthony Jones on March 02, 2020:

I find it very interesting that you never mentioned anything about the moors of Europe and in America from this time. During this time period there was still many moors of royalty throughout Europe and the king and queen royal families of Europe still carried the moor bloodline from when the moors ruled Europe for over 700 years. Even queen Victoria had the moor bloodline. So in Europe they were not shocked because they had and have pictures and statues of moor royalty in Britain and England and Rome and Germany and Scotland and Ireland and France and many moor Europe nations..also the have the cathedrals and castles and classical music and universities and libraries to remind them of the great moor kings and queens throughout Europe...no they wasn't surprised or shocked.

Matt on November 23, 2018:

I agree with Rufus. The United States seceded from England to preserve the institution of slavery. Though we have forgotten this, surely Confederate Deciders (who immediate prior to their own declaration of Independence were American Deciders) were aware of the British rejection of the institution.

Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on January 08, 2018:

This is very touching.

Liam O hAlmhain on December 30, 2017:

Noting comments made 4 years ago, I came to your page re Sarah, having watched the BBC's Christmas special of their series "Victoria" which featured Sarah's story! I googled and found your blog!!!

Jim Saunders on December 25, 2017:

No lover of Monarchy especially illegal Monarchy but the story of Sarah made me cry.

Dolores Bradwell on December 07, 2017:

Mr. Franklin, one of my students got a hold of this book in 2000, and couldn't put it down. She was in 3rd grade at the time, and I couldn't get her to read. Her Mom and Dad had just divorced. She was very sad, so she only read that book. Please try to get this book in the Schomburg Library so they can have it circulating so more black children and other children,too can know their Black and British history. Queen Victoria was one of the most beautiful queens of English. There is so much black history missing. I am doing research on our Egyptian and Ethopian history which have been taken away from us and many lies told because other races are claiming them.. We as African -Americans must get our African history told so our people will know the truth. This is very ispiring! Thank you very much for informing us.

Charles Berry on April 24, 2017:

I loved this posting. I never knew that the Queen of England had a black goddaughter. Thank you for sharing this post

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on January 13, 2016:

Thanks much, Randa. I think it would make a terrific movie, and I hope that will happen one day.

Randa Awn Handler from USA on January 13, 2016:

Sarah's story would make a good movie and thanks for all the research! I bet not too many people know about this part of history!

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 15, 2015:

Thank you, Kiss andTales. I hope your family really enjoys Sarah's story. I think it's an inspirational one.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 15, 2015:

Hi, Alun. I'm glad you appreciated Sarah's story. I wonder how many in the UK are aware of this part of their history. One thing that strikes me is that at a time when the British upper classes tended to strongly support the Confederacy, Sarah's welcome and acceptance at Buckingham Palace must have sent a message not just to the Confederacy, but to Britain itself. Thanks for reading and sharing.

Kiss andTales on September 15, 2015:

Wonderful hub !very interesting , you never stop learning no matter your age , And we should never think we know it all because we can shut down future and wonderful hubs like you have presented. Thank you I have a wonderful new story to share with my family thanks to you Ronald Franklin.

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on September 15, 2015:

This is a wonderful story Ron on so many levels. It is easy to see historical events in (excuse the pun) black and white terms, but usually there are shades of grey. I'm sure there would have been a novelty interest in a black girl in 19th century British upper class society, which probably fired the initial fascination for Queen Victoria to learn about Sarah. But equally the continuing relationship with her, and with her daughter, clearly shows how deep affection and respect for her developed and endured.

A side note - the reference to James Davies as 'J.Davies Esq', a 'West African businessman and missionary' also makes it clear also that even in those far off times, attitudes were changing and at least a select few black people could make it in respected society given the chance.

As you say, that article in the 'Richmond Daily Dispatch' must have shocked many in the South who believed that the Mother Country would support them in their pro-slavery attitudes. I just wish the comment by Captain Forbes ...

"She is far in advance of any white child of her age, in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection."

... had also been included in the report. That would have really made some Southerners fall off their chairs!! :)

Finally Ron, I absolutely agree that Sarah's story would make a good movie. Failing that, a TV drama series. In the UK the BBC regularly transmits serious yet entertaining documentaries, docu-dramas and historical serials, and no doubt PBS and other TV services in America do likewise. If a project was suggested, I am sure there are production companies which would be interested as the tale would appeal to any interested in the history of race relations, or in royalty, biographies, social history, or just feel-good stories of the 'rags-to-riches' type.

Shared, Alun

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on July 04, 2015:

Malcolm, I had not been aware of the story of Abdul Karim. I just did a quick search and found out a little about it. Thanks for alerting me to this interesting history.

Malcolm Massiah from Bristol, England on July 04, 2015:

No doubt you are aware of Victoria's Indian servant Abdul Karim (the Munshi), of whom she was quite fond also.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on July 04, 2015:

Malcolm, I appreciate that. Thanks for reading and sharing.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on July 04, 2015:

Thank you, StellaSee. It definitely is a fascinating story, and I'm glad you were stimulated to do some research: there is much more to the story than I was able to include in this hub.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on July 04, 2015:

Thanks, dingyskipper. It's surprising to me how many English people are unaware of this part of their history. It's a great story that shouldn't be forgotten.

Malcolm Massiah from Bristol, England on July 04, 2015:

A fascinating feature on a topic rarely written about. Quite an enjoyable and well researched hub, extremely informative and interesting. Thanks for the insight and for sharing.

StellaSee from California on May 30, 2015:

Hi RonElFran, I landed on this page after seeing a link to this hub from one of your hubs of the day. Like dingyskipper before me, I've never heard of Sarah's story (I had to google her because I became so interested in this) Thanks for sharing!

Carolyn from Northamptonshire on May 30, 2015:

I am English and never heard of this, really interesting. We really are taught the history they want us to know rather than the history that happened. Thank you so much for this which I found while looking at your hub of the day, congratulations for that too,

Carolyn

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 21, 2015:

Thanks, Damaris. It is a fascinating story that, as you say, ended too soon with Sarah's untimely death.

Damaris M Bavueza on February 20, 2015:

This is a fascinating story I have not heard before. Sarah's death held so much back-just like a movie with lots of suspense, but ended up abruptly.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 18, 2015:

Rufus, the British upper classes were very pro-Confederate. Had the rebels won some of the high profile battles they lost (Antietam, Gettysburg, etc), and had Lincoln not put forth the Emancipation Proclamation, there's a good chance the British would have intervened, and brought the French along with them. At the beginning of the war, the expectation of recognition by Britain and other European powers for the sake of "king cotton" was a major part of the secessionists' calculation that they could win a war with the U.S.

Rufus on February 18, 2015:

It may just be me, but I'd struggle to imagine that the Confederacy would really expect a British intervention, given that for the previous fifty years the Royal Navy had been intercepting slave ships (the West Africa Squadron was founded in 1808 and at its height represented a sixth of the entire RN), and that slave trading by anyone anywhere in the British Empire was likely to get you a one-way ticket to Australia (back before it was a tourist destination) from 1811 onwards.

If that hadn't clued them in, then the fact that the British had, since 1807, happily signed treaties with any newly formed nation (an easy way to gain international legitimacy and recognition as independent) to suppress the slave trade (Uruguay, Chile, Mexico and Bolivia in 1843 alone), bullied other empires into banning the trade (Ottoman Empire 1847) and outright bribed others (Spain in 1817 and Portugal in 1815) to suppress the trade.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 17, 2015:

Hi, Robert, and thanks for your comment. You're right that Victoria would usually not be directly involved in making political decisions. But her moral authority and influence, especially on the slavery issue, would be massive. If she publicly opposed recognizing the Confederacy because of slavery, or even hinted that she might, I don't think too many in Parliament would want to pay the political price of going ahead. Think, for example, of the workers of Manchester who, even while suffering from the Union blockade that cut off supplies of desperately needed cotton, sent a memorial of support for the Union to Lincoln.

Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on February 17, 2015:

Like most of the other commenters, I had no idea about Sarah Davies, & found your hub well-written, excellently researched, & fascinating. Queen Victoria's involvement in her life was a wonderful thing, but since the monarch is pretty much a figurehead in the British government, I'm not sure it meant that Britain wouldn't intervene on behalf of the Confederacy. It, & the story of how she ended up in Britain, DOES show that Britain, the nation most involved in the slave trade previously, had become its most committed enemy.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 17, 2015:

Hi, William. Although Sarah's is not strictly a Civil War story, that Confederate newspaper account is where I first ran across it. Having already written about Confederate hopes for European intervention in the war, I saw Sarah's story in that context. Thanks for reading.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 17, 2015:

Thank you, pstraubie48. I'd like to be hopeful that we are getting past the point where we divide ourselves based on race. But, as current events so graphically demonstrate, people don't have to be of different races or religions to find reasons to hate one another.