Was Queen Victoria really given an orphaned African child as a “gift”? The true story of Sarah Forbes Bonetta

The star of the Victoria Christmas special is an eight-year-old girl called Sarah who is rescued from slavery and given to the Queen

Jenna Coleman as Victoria and Zaris-Angel Hator as Sarah

In the Victoria Christmas special, we meet Sarah – a little girl with an extraordinary history. Rescued from slavery in West Africa by Captain Forbes, she is given to the Queen as a “gift” and spends the festive period with the royal family.

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The girl we see on screen is Sarah Forbes Bonetta, played by Zaris-Angel Hator – and yes, she did really exist. Here is what happened to her:

Who was Sarah, the slave girl given to Queen Victoria as a “gift”?

Sarah Forbes Bonetta in Victoria

Sarah Forbes Bonetta (born “Aina”) was a child of Yoruba royalty and a princess of the Egbado clan in West Africa. When she was only four or five years old, the brutal army of Dahomey attacked her village, decapitating her parents and slaughtering her siblings.

The orphaned princess was kept as a slave in the court of King Ghezo, whose army had killed her family. He was a notorious slave trader, but Aina was apparently destined to become a human sacrifice.

It was during a visit to King Ghezo that Captain Frederick E Forbes of the Royal Navy was able to rescue her. He was on a mission to convince the King to abandon slavery, and managed to bargain for the girl’s life by convincing Ghezo to give her to Queen Victoria. He later wrote in his journal: “She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.”

Forbes took her back to England, re-naming her after himself and his ship the HMS Bonetta: she became Sarah Forbes Bonetta, also nicknamed “Sally”. Forbes was very fond of his charge and impressed by her quick learning and talent for music, writing that she was a “perfect genius” was amazing strength of mind and affection.

Was Sarah sent to live with Queen Victoria at Christmas?

Sarah Forbes Bonetta
Queen Victoria’s goddaughter Sarah Forbes Bonetta on her wedding day (Getty)

In ITV’s Victoria, we see Captain Forbes reluctantly presenting Sarah at the Palace as a “gift”. The eight-year-old spends the festive period living with the royal family and playing in the royal nursery, but she is desperately unhappy and misses her surrogate mother Mrs Forbes.

This is close to what happened in real life – but there has been some dramatic license.

The Queen first met Sarah at Windsor Castle on 9th November 1850. The monarch (who felt herself opposed to racism) recognised her royal blood by calling her a princess, and was extremely impressed by her intellect. Queen Victoria became Sarah’s godmother and invited her to make regular visits to Windsor.

But Sarah never actually moved in as part of the royal household: instead, the Queen found guardians to look after her, and paid for her education and upbringing.

Did Sarah carry on living with Captain Forbes and his family?

Unfortunately, early in 1851, disaster struck when Captain Forbes died.

Around this time, Sarah developed a chronic cough. This was attributed to the climate of Great Britain, so the Queen had her sent to Sierra Leone where it was hoped that warmer temperatures might improve her health. From the ages of eight until 12 she lived unhappily in Sierra Leone, attending the Church Missionary Society school where she excelled academically.

Queen Victoria arranged for her return in 1855, and sent her to live with the middle-class Schoen family in Gillingham. Sarah remained in touch with her godmother the Queen, even attending her daughter Princess Vicky’s wedding in 1862.

What happened to Sarah when she grew up?

Victoria

When she was 19, Sarah received a marriage proposal from Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies – a wealthy businessman and also a Yoruba. He was more than a decade older than her and already widowed. She initially turned him down, but the Queen approved the match and Sarah had no financial independence if she refused.

The marriage went ahead, with a huge wedding in Brighton with guests both white and black. Luckily it proved happier than Sarah had initially expected, and the newlyweds moved to Africa where they had three children: Victoria, Arthur and Stella.

Sarah’s first-born daughter Victoria Davies was, of course, named after Queen Victoria herself. Together they made a trip back to England in 1867 and the Queen fell in love with the five-year-old girl, becoming godmother to little Victoria as well and paying for her education.

This was Sarah’s last trip to see the Queen. She had been unwell for many years, and in 1880 died of tuberculosis on the Portuguese island of Madeira at the age of only 37.

When she died, the Queen wrote: “Saw poor Victoria Davies, my black godchild, who learnt this morning of the death of her dear mother.”

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Victoria will return to ITV in 2018