Lady Sarah Forbes Bonetta: England's African Princess

Sara Forbes Bonetta photographed by Camille Silvy in 1862

The true story of Lady Sarah Forbes Bonetta, England’s African Princess, is a fascinating one. Rescued from certain death, she is transported to England where she thrives under the protective wing of Queen Victoria. The Princesses regal manner helped her gain the favored attention of the royal court. She was popular, she had few enemies, she was celebrated wherever she went, and she enjoyed a life of unusual privilege in her adopted homeland.

At the time of the Princesses arrival in England, slavery had been legally abolished in her territories. However, the illegal slave trade still occurred on the West African shores of what is now known as Nigeria, a nation which had been colonized by the English Empire. Naval patrols in this region were supposedly sanctioned by the Queen to suppress this activity.

One of those in charge of patrolling the waters was Lieutenant Frederick E. Forbes, an officer in the British navy. He was sent on two occasions to the King of Dahomey to negotiate a truce on the trafficking of humans and to encourage other forms of trade. It was at this point Lieutenant Forbes was made aware of a delicate little girl who was held captive by King Gehezo.

Warrior Nation

According to European accounts, the Kingdom of Dahomey was a fierce warrior nation, ruled by the equally fierce King Gehezo, that created the majority of it’s wealth through providing slaves to European nations. However, the objectivity of these early writers are suspect because of their own participation in this business, directly or indirectly.

Furthermore, of all the volumes written about Queen Victoria's life, not one can be found about the African Princess who impacted her life. This is very odd. It's a well known fact that historical records can be altered, distorted, or completely ignored to suit the whims of irresponsible historians. Written accounts of African history by these types of persons are no different.

In my research on this subject much discussion is made of Africans selling other Africans in the slave trade, as if this makes the European nation's role in this heinous state of affairs less culpable. While it’s true that some of this activity was due to pure greed, a majority of the African Kings and Chiefs fought to the death to resist involvement in the slave trade. Many of them were forced into it by brutish imperial powers hungry for free labor.

King Ghezo was concerned more so by the political consequences of ending the slave trade because there's a high price exacted when you sell your soul to the devil. The raids he committed against neighboring nations may be viewed as a testimony of his concerns. By all accounts, he was ferocious, heartless, and inhumane to those he dominated, many of whom are said to have cowered and ran for cover at the mere mention of his name. We may never know if he was truly as vile as historians claim or if there were other underlying circumstances which compelled him to act in this manner.

A Gift for the Queen

Not much is known about the Princesses life before meeting Forbes. What we do know is she was of the noble Yoruba bloodline. The royal markings on her face were telltale signs of her aristocratic pedigree. At the time of her capture, it’s believed she was between 5-8 years old and she was slated for ritual sacrifice. Only royals were sacrificed to the ancestors as a sign of honor and respect toward them. Her tender age and virginity may have increased her worth in this matter, as well.

With her parents, the King and Queen of Egbado Omoba, beheaded before her eyes, her homeland ransacked and pillaged, she was possibly traumatized to the point of forgetting her own name and her exact age at the time of her capture. It's unfortunate that those details are lost to history. She had siblings also but what became of them is unknown. If not for the intervention of Forbes, the little Princess would have become another casualty of the King who appeared to hold her fate in his hands.