Whenever I pass St Nicholas Church, Brighton climbing up the hilly Dyke Road from the town centre, I always think of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, the famous slave princess and goddaughter of Queen Victoria. She married in this unlikely seaside church in August 1862.Not very big or grand this church, not as Victorian as one would think, but looking at it with modern eyes, it seems rather humble. And yet, according to Bert Williams MBE D Lit., co-founder of Brighton & Hove Black History, when she got married there were so many people in attendance that she couldn’t get through the door to walk to the altar.
In the height of summer 1862, a wedding party like no other strode through Brighton. 10 carriages of white and African high society people made its ways to the church.
Captain Frederick Forbes, on the other hand, was impressed, as he documented 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 decease 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”.
There is a deep sadness and hidden trauma in the eyes of Sarah Forbes Bonetta in every photo I have seen of her. Omoba Aina, as she was born, or Sally, as Queen Victoria nicknamed her. She was named after her rescuers ship, HMS Bonetta.
Sarah was born in 1843, a West African Egbado princess of the Yoruba people. At age five her village was attacked and her parents killed. Shortly before she was due to be sacrificed in the court of King Ghezo, she was saved by a British Captain, Captain Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy who suggested she be offered as a present to Queen Victoria.
Transported to England, Sarah lived at first with Captain Forbes’s family. On 9 November, she was taken to Windsor Castle and received by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Queen was so impressed with Sarah that she paid for her education and met with her on several occasions, even writing about her in her journal.
Sarah was plagued by fragile health. In 1851 she returned to Africa to attend the Female Institution in Freetown, Sierra Leone. At 12 years old, Queen Victoria commanded that Sarah return to England and was placed under the charge of Mr and Mrs Schon at Chatham.
Growing up, Sarah spent a lot of time visiting Queen Victoria and their household at Windsor Castle and was close friends with her daughter Princess Alice. Queen Victoria was impressed with Sarah’s natural regal manner and her academic abilities and knowledge of literature, art and music.
In a very modern way, Sarah had a career, training as a teacher so that was one thing she enjoyed. But the Queen made sure she understood that she must marry in order to be maintained in the manner in which she was accustomed.
An appropriate suitor was found: Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy Yoruba businessman. Of course she had to marry someone who was African like her. Sarah refused and was sent to live in Brighton, with two elderly ladies whose house she described as a “desolate little pig sty”. Unhappy with the situation, Sarah felt she had not choice but to accept the offer.
Following their wedding in 1862, the couple lived briefly in Brighton’s Seven Dials at 17 Clifton Hill. They then moved to Lagos and had three children: Victoria Davies was born in 1863, followed by Arthur Davies in 1871 and Stella Davies in 1873. The first born was named after Queen Victoria, who was given an annuity by the Queen and continued to visit the royal household throughout her life.
Sarah died on 15 August 1880 in the city of Funchal, the capital of Madeira Island, a Portuguese island in the Atlantic ocean. Her husband erected a granite obelisk-shaped monument more than eight feet high in her memory at Ijon in Western Lagos, where he had started a cocoa farm.
The inscription on the obelisk reads:
IN MEMORY OF PRINCESS SARAH FORBES BONETTA
WIFE OF THE HON J.P.L. DAVIES WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE AT MADEIRA AUGUST 15TH 1880
AGED 37 YEARS
Royal Pavilion & Museums collections, Brighton Gazette August 1862.
About the author:
Amy Zamarripa Solis
Amy Zamarripa Solis is a producer, writer and artist from Austin, Texas. She is Director of This Too Is Real, an arts production and management company, specialising in arts, culture, heritage and diversity. She also runs Writing Our Legacy, a literature organisation set up in 2012, focused on supporting Black and ethnic minority writers and writing in Sussex and South East of England. Her latest projects include Constructed Geographies, a touring exhibition of Sussex visual artists (2018-19), Hidden Sussex anthology (Writing Our Legacy, 2019) and No Place Like Home, an exploration into childhood home and its loss, starting with her own Mexican-American community in Austin Texas, ¡La Cultura No Se Vende! (Our Culture is Not For Sale!), told through short stories, film and archive material.
She is Co-Chair of Disability Arts Online and on the Boards of AudioActive and New Writing South.
Writing Our Legacy
Writing Our Legacy is an organisation whose aim is to raise awareness of the contributions of Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) writers, poets, playwrights and authors born, living or connected to Sussex and the South East. We employ Mosaic charity’s definition of Black to be ‘Black people’ and ‘mixed-parentage people’ including all those people whose ancestral origins are African, Asian, Caribbean, Chinese, Middle Eastern, North African, Romany, the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific islands, the American continents, Australia and New Zealand. We run events across Sussex and the South East that showcase emerging and established BME writers and provide professional development and networking opportunities.