As we revel in the afterglow of the landmark moment Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris, made history as the first Black and South Indian-American woman to hold office, I’m celebrating the remarkable story of a forgotten, kidnapped, enslaved, renamed African Princess, who became Queen Victoria’s adopted goddaughter and married in Brighton in an extraordinary ceremony featured in the Illustrated London News and The Times newspapers – yet whose story is little known locally.
In the height of summer 1862, a wedding party like no other strode through Brighton. It featured 10 carriages of white and African high-society people making their way to St Nicholas’ Church. They were here for the wedding of a forgotten member of the British Royal family, Princess Omoba Aina of Africa, Queen Victoria’s adopted black goddaughter, also known as Sarah Forbes Bonetta.
The Brighton Gazette reported that the young bride, then aged about 19, wore a white silk wedding dress and a headdress of orange blossom, and was attended by no less than 16 bridesmaids. It described the wedding party entering the church: “… white ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with white gentlemen until all the space was filled” and that the guests attended a grand “wedding breakfast” at another location in Brighton.
Before “Queen Victoria’s Black Goddaughter” was corseted-up as Sarah Forbes Bonetta in England, she lived as Egbado Princess Omoba Aina in West Africa. She was sold into slavery at age four, when her parents – tribal royalty of the Egbado clan – were killed in a brutal raid on her village by the notorious slave trading monarch, King Gezo of Dahomey. Sarah was captured but spared death when Frederick E Forbes, a British captain in the Royal Navy, arrived on behalf of Queen Victoria to convince the King to eliminate slavery from those areas.
Forbes was so taken by the little girl and negotiated with the King, who offered her as a gift “from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites”. Forbes was responsible for taking her back to England, at which point he also renamed her with his own surname, added the “Bonetta” after his ship, HMS Bonetta. Sarah Forbes Bonetta as she was now known, was eight years old when she reached Britain.
Captain Forbes wrote in his diary of his adopted African princess:
She is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and has a great talent for music. She has won the affections, with but 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.
By the time she arrived in Britain, she was eight years old, and had already been orphaned, enslaved, stripped of her identity and stolen from her country. She also taught herself to speak English on the voyage over – testament to her intellectual prowess. She lived at first with Captain Forbes’s family, then was taken to Windsor Castle to see Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Queen paid for Sarah to be educated and saw her several times in the space of a few years eventually adopting her as goddaughter.
Forbes died after Sarah’s first year in England, at which point Sarah returned to Africa to be educated in a missionary school in Sierra Leone. Upon missing her new way of life, she returning soon after eventually moving to Brighton when James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy businessman living in Britain, asked to marry her. Initially she declined, but was
forced encouraged to accept on Queen Victoria’s advice.
Following their wedding, the couple lived briefly in Brighton’s Seven Dials at 17 Clifton Hill, before returning to Sierra Leone, Davies’ homeland. Here, Sarah was a teacher and gave birth to a daughter whom she named Victoria, in honour of the Queen who became the child’s godmother. Sarah had two more children but sadly caught TB and died shortly after moving to Madeira in a bid to ease her symptoms. She was just 37.
Discovering that a West African Princess, adopted by the British Royal family lived and married in Brighton, has changed my skewed vision of a white-only Victorian Brighton. It also provides valuable proof of a black presence in Brighton interacting with society at the highest level, albeit under bizarre circumstances. I’ll never walk past St Nicholas’ Church without thinking of her and wondering how her incredible experience affected her.