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.
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.”
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.
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.