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’d like to celebrate a forgotten, kidnapped, enslaved, African Princess, who was adopted into the British Royal family and got married in Brighton, an event which made it into the Illustrated London News and The Times newspapers.
Despite the fact she’s the first black bride of Windsor and the first black member of the British Royal family, she’s rarely mentioned in the conversation about upper-class Victorian Britain.
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 Princess Omoba Aina of Africa, Queen Victoria’s adopted black goddaughter, later 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.
All accounts say that 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, adding the “Bonetta” after his ship, HMS Bonetta. Sarah Forbes Bonetta as she became 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 this point, she had already been orphaned, enslaved, stripped of her identity and stolen from her country. Yet on the voyage over, she managed to teach herself to speak English, showing her strength of character and intellectual capabilities; qualities which Queen Victoria were taken by. In England, she lived at first with Captain Forbes’s family, then was taken to Windsor Castle to see Queen Victoria who recognising her potential, eventually paying for her education, and adopting her.
When Forbes died during Sarah’s first year in England, Sarah returned to Africa to go to missionary school in Sierra Leone, but missed England, so came back, moved to Brighton and married James Pinson Labulo Davies, a wealthy African businessman living in Britain. Initially she declined, but was
forced encouraged to accept on Queen Victoria’s advice.
After 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 and Great Britain. It also provides valuable proof of a black presence interacting with society at the highest level, albeit under bizarre circumstances. I’ll never walk past St Nicholas’ Church without thinking of her.
News flash! I just read that the story of Victorian England’s first black princess is being made into a film staring London actress Cynthia Erivo and Benedict Cumberbatch using this meaty sounding book as the source material – At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England by Walter Dean Myers.