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.

This Innovative Cutting Board Takes the Mess Out of Meal Prep

There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
TidyBoard, Kickstarter

Transferring food from the cutting board to the bowl—or scraps to the compost bin—can get a little messy, especially if you’re dealing with something that has a tendency to roll off the board, spill juice everywhere, or both (looking at you, cherry tomatoes).

The TidyBoard, available on Kickstarter, is a cutting board with attached containers that you can sweep your ingredients right into, taking the mess out of meal prep and saving you some counter space in the process. The board itself is 15 inches by 20 inches, and the container that fits in its empty slot is 14 inches long, 5.75 inches wide, and more than 4 inches deep. Two smaller containers fit inside the large one, making it easy to separate your ingredients.

Though the 4-pound board hangs off the edge of your counter, good old-fashioned physics will keep it from tipping off—as long as whatever you’re piling into the containers doesn’t exceed 9 pounds. It also comes with a second set of containers that work as strainers, so you can position the TidyBoard over the edge of your sink and drain excess water or juice from your ingredients as you go.

You can store food in the smaller containers, which have matching lids; and since they’re all made of BPA-free silicone, feel free to pop them in the microwave. (Remove the small stopper on top of the lid first for a built-in steaming hole.)

tidyboard storage containers
They also come in gray, if teal isn't your thing.
TidyBoard

Not only does the bamboo-made TidyBoard repel bacteria, it also won’t dull your knives or let strong odors seep into it. In short, it’s an opportunity to make cutting, cleaning, storing, and eating all easier, neater, and more efficient. Prices start at $79, and it’s expected to ship by October 2020—you can find out more details and order yours on Kickstarter.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Racist Origins of Santa Cruz, California's Rock ‘n’ Roll Ban of 1956

The Santa Cruz town elders probably would've been alarmed by the audience's enthusiasm for Big Jay McNeely in 1953.
The Santa Cruz town elders probably would've been alarmed by the audience's enthusiasm for Big Jay McNeely in 1953.
Archive Photos/Getty Images

On June 2, 1956, approximately 200 teenagers rolled up to the civic auditorium in Santa Cruz, California, to revel in the early rock ‘n’ roll music of saxophonist Chuck Higgins and his Orchestra. Nobody resisted the temptation to hit the dance floor for “Pachuko Hop” and other lively Higgins tunes, and fun was had by all for the first three hours of that Saturday night event.

Then, shortly after midnight, the local police stopped by. Horrified by what he considered “highly suggestive, stimulating, and tantalizing motions” and music that he feared might make the crowd “uncontrollable,” Lieutenant Richard Overton promptly shut down the concert, about 40 minutes before its scheduled end at 1 a.m.

“It is quite obvious,” Overton wrote in his police report, “that this type of affair is detrimental to both the health and morals of our youth and community.”

By Monday morning, police chief Al Huntsman had instituted a city-wide ban on “rock ‘n’ roll and other frenzied forms of terpsichore,” according to the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

In the Lair of the Square

Almost immediately after the news broke, the police department received a barrage of phone calls from out-of-town reporters. A bunch of high school students even organized a protest at the district attorney’s office. The backlash prompted city manager Robert Klein to loosen the restrictions that very same week, clarifying that “there’s no ban on an orchestra coming in and having a rock ‘n’ roll dance,” and only obscene dancing itself would be prohibited.

“We encourage dancing by juvenile groups all summer long,” he said. “We frequently have dances in Civic Auditorium and as long as they’re properly conducted, they’re welcome.”

As Marlo Novo pointed out in a blog post for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, Klein may have been motivated more by his worry about the ban’s commercial impact on the city than anything else. At the time, Santa Cruz—located on the Monterey Bay, about 70 miles south of San Francisco—was a sleepy, idyllic summer getaway with an economy built on tourism. If hip teens could no longer host their beloved dance parties, families might choose to vacation in a different coastal town. The tone of the nationwide coverage could be bad for business, too, with various newspapers poking fun at the authorities’ attempts to deny that Santa Cruz was “the lair of the square.”

Teenagers Talk Back

While Overton’s original ironclad embargo on rock ‘n’ roll dances didn’t last more than a few days, the fiasco highlighted the racial tension that existed around rock ‘n’ roll music in the 1950s.

The Santa Cruz Sentinel’s account of the Saturday night dance mentioned that Higgins and his “all-Negro band” were behind the “provocative rhythms,” and auditorium manager Ray Judah outright prohibited him from playing at the venue ever again.

“He’s through,” Judah said curtly. Soon after that, Higgins was turned away from an appearance at a nightclub on Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip. Judah also canceled a performance by rock ‘n’ roll trailblazer Fats Domino that had been scheduled in the auditorium for July 24, explaining that the musician attracted “a certain type of crowd that would not be compatible to this particular community.”

Some of Santa Cruz’s younger residents took issue with the discrimination. In a letter to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, for example, 16-year-old concertgoer Arlene Freitas criticized how the newspaper had covered Higgins’s performance and the problems it supposedly caused.

“The prejudice[d] statement, which implied that the dance was induced by the all-Negro band, was uncalled for and untrue; dancing of this sort occurred at the Halloween dance last year, where a white band played, but much less was made of that ... I disagree with you about the destruction of health and morals of our youth; if anything, it helps by eliminating prejudice between the two races. One last thing: Did the writer of the article use rubber ink? Because he sure did stretch the truth!”

A Prejudiced Policy

Unfortunately, the opinions of teenagers had little influence over town policy, and the city council reinforced Judah’s racist tendencies later that summer when they granted him the power to refuse “any and all proposals for auditorium use not consistent with the presentation of clean and acceptable stage and floor events, including dances of immoral and suggestive character.”

Though the Santa Cruz Sentinel made a point of mentioning that the ruling could apply to anything “from rock ‘n’ roll to stately waltz,” Judah’s previous decisions imply that he likely only intended to ban Black rock ‘n’ rollers.

Fortunately, the public sentiment toward rock ‘n’ roll changed as it became more mainstream in the following few years, and many people began to realize that the newly-celebrated genre wouldn’t have existed without Black musicians like Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. And, of course, the teenagers eventually got old enough to be the policymakers themselves.