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Video: Sarah Forbes Bonetta, A Fascinating Story Of A West African Princess In Victorian Britain

by Vanessa Martinez
October 1, 2011 1:32 AM
37 Comments
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A story I found in this Afro-Europe blog; I was surprised of how little is known/talked about of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a West African Egbado Omoba (Yoruba people of South-West Nigeria) of royal blood, who was orphaned at the age of eight due to a family massacre in her home country.

As the story goes, Royal Navy Captain Frederick E. Forbes convinced King Guezo of Dahomey (known today as Benin in W. Africa), soon after the country's warfare killings, to allow him to give the young princess to Queen Victoria in England as a gift. Forbes wrote later in his diary that the princess was "a present from the King of the blacks to the Queen of the Whites."

Upon witnessing the young girl's regal manner and exceptional intellectual aptitude (it's said she learned to speak perfect English on the way to Britain), Queen Victoria granted the newly named Sarah Forbes Bonetta regular visits to the Windsor Castle, and sent Sarah, now the Queen's goddaughter in middle class Britain, to Sierra Leon to be educated in a Church Missionary Society.

In August 1862, Sarah was sanctioned by Queen Victoria to marry a Yoruba businessman of considerable wealth named James Pinson Labulo Davies, at Nicholas Church in Brighton. The extravagant wedding party included ten carriages and pairs of grays and sixteen bridesmaids, with a showcase "of white ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with white gentlemen."

After the wedding, the couple later moved back to their native West Africa. Sarah had a daughter; who she named Victoria with the Queen's permission. Sadly, Sarah died at the young age of 37 of tuberculosis.

Upon her death, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary "Saw poor Victoria Davies, my black godchild, who learnt this morning of the death of her dear mother." The Queen was proud of Victoria's educational excellence and gave her annuity for continued visits to the royal household throughout her life.

In a journal of Frederick E. Forbes, he says this about Sarah:

I have only to add a few particulars about my extraordinary present The African child in a former portion of these journal I have mentioned the Okeadon war; one of the captives of this dreadful slave-hunt was this interesting girl.

It is usual to reserve the best born for the high behest of royalty and the immolation on the tombs of the diseased nobility . For one of these ends she had been detained at court for two years: proving, by her not having been sold to slave dealer, that she was of a good family.

So extraordinary a present would have been at least burden, had I not the conviction that, in consideration of the nature of the service I had performed, the government would consider her as the property of the crown.

To refuse, would have been to have signed her death warrant: which, probably, would have been carried into execution forthwith. Immediately on arriving…
Of her own history she was only a confused idea. Her parents were decapitated; her brother and sisters she knows not what their fate might have been .
For her age supposed to be eight years. She is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and have and 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: and with her, been an excellent specimens of the Negro race.

Very interesting to note the dynamics between the races and the fact that as a child and probably her lifetime, Sarah was still considered "a present," essentially an object. However, the story proves to be much more complex than that, as there seems to be genuine affection. There's so much to be explored from stories like this; there must be similarities of this nature, royalty aside, that would apply to American slavery as well. An example of an extraordinary, "peculiar" indeed, and bittersweet part of history.

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37 Comments

  • Jayda | April 14, 2014 10:48 AMReply

    i love her so much she is amazing and pretty... need to learn more about her!!!

  • urbanauteur | October 4, 2011 7:09 AMReply

    If i was in charge of this production,here's who i"ll package-DEE REES-Director
    AKOSUA BUSIA/MARYSE CONDE-ScreenWriters
    ADEPERO ODUYE-1ST CAST CHOICE
    ENUKA OKUMA-2ND CHOICE
    BRANDY (norwood) 3rd CHOICE (yeah i said it,with a little prodding and without her meddling moma).
    BRADFORD YOUNG or mALIK sAYEED- LENSCRAFTERS!.

  • urbanautuer | October 3, 2011 12:04 PMReply

    Great Find, it's testament, how many malign,untold,stories were submerged like raisons in a bowl of milk (white supremacy). thanx V for bringing the heat,once again..:)

  • BondGirl | October 3, 2011 9:29 AMReply

    @Cherish:

    Here's an article on the Dove for Men controversy. Ironically, everyone kept screaming racism when it turned out the ad was created by blacks. Sigh.

    http://theurbandaily.com/theurbandaily-original/jbarrow/why-this-nivea-for-men-ad-is-uncivilized-opinion/

  • Goodly heritage | October 3, 2011 9:23 AMReply

    Yeah we know that we even go far back than that with John Blanke - a black trumpeter in the Royal Court of Henry 7th and 8th ...how far do you want to go ? We can go back to the bible....

  • Cherish | October 3, 2011 4:07 AMReply

    Hmm, too bad Brandy isn't a good actress.

  • Cherish | October 3, 2011 3:46 AMReply

    BondGirl,

    Please elaborate on the Dove for Men ad.

  • Cherish | October 3, 2011 3:45 AMReply

    @Accidental Visitor

    Yes, casting for some commercials between Black parents/mixed kids or vice versa due appear to be "random."

    I think White people see color differently, or should say they don't make the same distinctions in color/complexions In Black people, as Black people do.

    It's different. Yes White people may prefer certain complexions, features, hair textures in Blacks. But other times its as if "Black is Black" no matter how looks differ, so casting can be pretty random and doesn't "make sense" to us. And we are so freakin conscious and sensitive when it comes to this.

  • kele | October 3, 2011 2:48 AMReply

    Fascinating story.

    I believe Genevieve Nnaji will perfect these role if ever they consider an African known talent. Not only does she have the poise to easily play such roles, she will bring loads of attention to it esp. within Africa and in the Carribeans. I don't even think these movie necessarily requires a known face (just like Precious), the story has grativas and if the script, by any means, is well plotted out and written with a good director is attached to it, am not sure why it won't be marketable anywhere irrespective of who portrays Sarah. As for unknown talents, there are thousands of them who can pull it off in Africa. Africa's got talent too.

    Am tired of African stories being told by Westerners and or Hollywood, they will never tell it better than us. They sure have the technical know how but they always lose authenticity when telling African stories. They will never tell it like Ousame Sebeme or Tunde Kelani just as we can never tell their stories better than them. Never.

    Anyway, am looking forward to how this spans out if it does get made.

  • ForeignBlackChick | October 3, 2011 1:32 AMReply

    @ BondGirl

    You get mistaken for Nigerian? Cool. African Americans look like West Africans to me so I'm not surprised.

    Well... if this finally becomes a movie let's hope by then black american actresses are actually bankable in their own country. Unless this is for black audiences...

    Perhaps 'Children of Men' might have been panned, but I see more dramatic acting in it than Fame(panned also), Playboy Club which Naturi was and is in.

    Your first choice was Nicole Beharie which leads me to think anyone will do as long she's not African.
    Is this real life...

    Aissa Maiga will at least bring in the French, Italians and high culture Americans (the faux intellects who watch foreign movies). That would give the movie some gravitas.

    Thanks for the interesting commentary though! Very insightful :)

  • BondGirl | October 2, 2011 12:51 PMReply

    @Foreign Black Chick:

    "Most moviegoers that ‘apparently’ matter are white americans.
    Who would they prefer to see in this role… Naturi(famous black token of Mad Men knockoff on TV) or Aissa(famous black token of french and italian films in aplace far far away?)? They know neither."

    Yes "they" do know Naturi. You think only Negroes listen to hip hop? Notorious made 44Mil, over 35 of that was domestic. White people (and Latins) know who she is, which is why she got booked for Mad Men & Playboy Club. Or did you think it was just luck that got her cast? And last I checked, African-Americans still have predominately African blood. I get mistaken for Nigerian ALL THE TIME by Africans. Shall we insist the actress take a DNA test too?

    Latinos are just as interested in our stories as blacks, fyi...hence the reason Vanessa brought this article to our attention. Which means even more cause to make sure it's an American who Americans can relate to. No one can relate to the actress from Children of Men...and wasn't that movie panned? (or was it just me who hated it lol) She doesn't have a hit on her hands domestically.

    @Accidental Visitor:

    Yes, casting sessions with whites are just as ridiculous...except instead of nationality they spend useless hours over whether an actress should wear a wig or dye her hair blonde. Or when they can't make up their mind over 2 actresses up for a role after 7 hours arguing, they go with the girl with the "cuter" haircut. The casting director, director, producer, executive producer, executive producer's wife, writer, and studio execs all have their very strong opinions during casting. This is nothing.

    And yes, I do take note of the milky girl with her chocolate father. Saw it at Target and started to write them a letter. But you're right, it's quite possible that a black person picked her. You see what happened with the ad for Dove for Men?

  • Batare | October 2, 2011 11:25 AMReply

    I have been fascinated by this story for a while, I've always been curious as to why the History Channel never told stories of African royalty and it seemed like those stories would never be told, but when I found out there was a legitimate African princess and she was actually accepted by British society (where all the royalty movies and books really seem to stem), I was thrilled. My concern though is not who would play Sarah (although I must admit Clare Hope is a wonderful consideration). My concern is who will write it. We have a shortage of effective black writers these days and not to say that only a black writer can write a story like this, but wouldn't it be nice if we finally had a black writer write this story? Wouldn't be so great if we can change the dynamic of the black image. But let me get off my soap box. Anyway, this is a wonderful story and I'm glad its getting attention overseas and here in the states also.

  • ForeignBlackChick | October 2, 2011 8:33 AMReply

    Most moviegoers that 'apparently' matter are white americans.

    Who would they prefer to see in this role... Naturi(famous black token of Mad Men knockoff on TV) or Aissa(famous black token of french and italian films in aplace far far away?)? They know neither.

    Since neither will bring in the dollars or white audience, why don't we just stick to the truth and cast someone who is of that ethnicity?

    Introduce an African woman to African American audiences, like what happened with Idris Elba. African american women love him, so why can't they love a fellow sister, albeit from another continent?

    What about the Ghanaian, Clare Hope Ashitey. The pregnant black girl who they were supposed to protect in 'Children of Men'? She's young.

  • Micah | October 2, 2011 7:36 AMReply

    That is ((she should not be allowed to have any nudity clauses in her contract.)) What? That's an important point.

  • MIcah | October 2, 2011 7:34 AMReply

    I don't even know why we are having the discussion.

    Obviously the only choice is Naomie Harris!

    Now all of you can STFU!

    NAOMIE HARRIS: LEAD ACTRESS IN EVERYTHING FOR THE REST OF ETERNITY. (and she should be allowed to have any nudity clauses in her contract).

    In lieu of that, Fictitious Production company should get that chick that plays Madea. Now she can open a movie!

  • ForeignBlackChick | October 2, 2011 7:32 AMReply

    {{ Why couldn’t an African actress who is also beginning get the same opportunity for a movie about a Yoruba princess? }}

    Because to BondGirl, this is a delicious and exotic role for a black american actress who doesn't stand a chance anywhere else in Hollywood. Understandable. We also have to factor in the whole 'Africans are arrogant and therefore should stay in their lane' thing.

    Not to be patronizing(because I agree with your comments most of the time), but Nicole Beharie would not be considered white anywhere in Africa. Neither would any African American I have seen. Maybe Rashida Jones... but even then. There are millions of mixed people in African towns and even many non-mixed groups have light skin and pointy features, in my country at least.

    And many Africans have seen white people before, taking away their land in Zimbabwe and South Africa, or carrying out sex tourism in Ghana and Kenya. They know what white people look like lol. So Nicole Beharie, Halle Berry and Kerry Washington white? Nope.

  • AccidentalVisitor | October 2, 2011 4:19 AMReply

    {{{ I don’t think there is anything wrong per se in discussing this, I guess. These things are taken into consideration by BOTH whites and blacks behind the scenes anyway. }}}



    I don't know about that when it comes to whites. Have you seen the commercials or sitcoms with black families in which the children look as if they could NEVER come from those sets of parents. Or when the girl in the family has light skin and what looks to be naturally, wavy long hair while the brother is much darker and has hair that is kinky? Makes me shake my head about the people making those casting decisions. Then again maybe some of the people doing the casting were black. My favorite example though was from the first season of "24". Dennis Haysbert and Penny Johnson could not produce a son that looked like the actor they picked for the role. :)

  • AccidentalVisitor | October 2, 2011 4:12 AMReply

    {{{ Not to be patronizing(because I agree with your comments most of the time), but Nicole Beharie would not be considered white anywhere in Africa. Neither would any African American I have seen. Maybe Rashida Jones… but even then. There are millions of mixed people in African towns and even many non-mixed groups have light skin and pointy features, in my country at least. }}}

    I get that. I'm going by the words of people like Thandie Newton who said herself that interesting enough the Africans of her mother's homeland considered her and others with mixed ancestry to be white. And I have heard of other Africans who take that view. Of course they know what a real white person looks like. Who in this world doesn't? But just as white people in Europe and America have historically categorized mixed black people under the black label (although that may be changing), is it too much to believe that some Africans take the opposite viewpoint and look at such folks as not being black like them? Again I would disagree with this view but one of my sisters whose complexion is the same of, say, Oprah Winfrey was told to her face by one African woman that she "wasn't black" simply because a small part of her bloodline is Native American and European. Anyway I was probably going too far by putting Nicole and Thandie in that same category.

  • Cherish | October 2, 2011 3:45 AMReply

    I doesn't matter (to me at least) the nationality of the actress chosen to play this role.

    I do believe that she should be dark skin with typical West African features. African Americans in general are descendents of West Africans.

    Naturi Naughton would be a good fit IMO. Or as ForeignBlackChick mentioned, the one who played the pregnant Black girl in Children of Men.

    Nicole Beharie or Kerry Washington (who is starting to "age" out) are not light skinned, but would be "too light" for this.

    I don't think there is anything wrong per se in discussing this, I guess. These things are taken into consideration by BOTH whites and blacks behind the scenes anyway.

  • AlreadyDoneIt | October 2, 2011 2:48 AMReply

    I think all the actresses that have been named are far too old to play this teenaged girl. The only girl young enough would be the girl from The Playboy Club. Unfortunately she has little talent and would ruin a film of this weight. The lead in this film would have to go to an extremely talented, young newcomer and this could be her vehicle to become the next (and hopefully better) Halle or Kerry

  • BluTopaz | October 2, 2011 2:35 AMReply

    Sometimes when i read these threads it''s so obvious to me why Black folks can't get ish done most of the time, never mind have our own entertainment industry. We're too busy arguing about complexion, nationality, & who knows more about what.

  • BondGirl | October 2, 2011 1:42 AMReply

    @Accidental Visitor:

    " When she was a relative unknown the people behind a small budget film called ‘American Violet” decided to give her the lead role. They didn’t go for more well known actresses like Gabrielle Union or Sanaa Lathan. They took a risk and went with Nicole. Why couldn’t an African actress who is also beginning get the same opportunity for a movie about a Yoruba princess?"

    The reason I wouldn't choose an African actress who is relatively unknown (unless someone like Adepero Oduye) is because theoretically I'd have the money to pay the fee for a more well known actress who would at least garner press for the film if nothing more. I'm sure that if the producers of American Violet could've paid Sanaa's rate, Beharie wouldn't stand a chance. Now some name actresses are smart enough to lower their fee to take a smaller budget film if it will garner them awards or press. Such was the case for Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry.

    Ideally, this is how I'd work it. I'll use Naturi as an example, though she isn't who I'd call in first. She's on the Playboy Club, so I'd try to get a deal with Universal Studios and pitch Naturi as lead. They will see the cross-marketing potential of having her in the movie and will have her come on The Today Show, Access Hollywood, etc to talk about TPC & the movie at the same time. Black Bloggers love her so she can promote the film online as well. So can she open a film? No. Can she bring in press for the film? Yes. This is all contigent upon NBC not cancelling TPC, but I could use another black actress (Kerry Washington for example) and her new show Scandal and do the same thing. Not that I'd cast her... she's too light, even though in King of Scotland they did darken her.

    Btw, I did say my first choice was an African...Adepero. She is African, no?

  • Sir_Geechie | October 1, 2011 12:46 PMReply

    Excellent and interesting article. Thanks!

  • AccidentalVisitor | October 1, 2011 10:33 AMReply

    {{{ Wait just a second, Nicole Beharie is light-skinned? You’ve lost me, AV. LOL Certainly, she’s not the darkest woman but not exactly light-skinned, I don’t think.}}}

    Misha, it is interesting at times what some black people consider to be light complexion and dark complexion. I find myself objecting too when people claim someone is light skinned when in my eyes they appear to be dark skinned. So maybe I do need to step back and look at Nicole in a new…uh…light. I thought she was about the complexion of Laurence Fishburne. Some feel Fishburne is light complexion, some feel he is dark complexion. Regardless there are some citizens of Sub-Saharan Africa who would consider Nicole white. That seems crazy to us of course, but the point is that one doesn’t automatically think “African” when looking at her picture/

    {{{ Slow your roll, Accidental Visitor. Welcome back to Mother Earth. This is why I said theoretically }}}

    We already know this conversation is theoretical. I never mistook you for being Oprah Winfrey after all. That being said I still feel that was a terrible choice. Just one man’s opinion.

    {{{ Iif it’s a feature, it would have to be someone who can open a film. }}}

    I hear ya but it is not necessarily the case because newcomers are given leads in movies as long as the budget is right. It does happen. Now playing devil’s advocate if a “name” would be the only way to greenlight this film please tell me how Nicole falls into that category? She may be popular with people at Shadow and Act but she is a long way from being a person who can open a major film on her own. In fact she may never get to that point in her career. However she has a chance. And how did she get into position to have such a chance? When she was a relative unknown the people behind a small budget film called ‘American Violet” decided to give her the lead role. They didn’t go for more well known actresses like Gabrielle Union or Sanaa Lathan. They took a risk and went with Nicole. Why couldn’t an African actress who is also beginning get the same opportunity for a movie about a Yoruba princess?

  • JMac | October 1, 2011 10:00 AMReply

    Have not heard of this story or this woman. Thanks for the post. Only confirms how complex the relationship is between whites and blacks. Reminds me of stories about the sons and daughters of African dignitaries being sent to colonial America for schooling whose host families were prominent white politicians and businessmen.

    Out of all the opinions re: AV's film question, I'll hitch onto Blu Topaz's. This story shouldn't be a fictionalized movie. Only a documentary if it must be told via video.

  • BondGirl | October 1, 2011 9:02 AMReply

    Slow your roll, Accidental Visitor. Welcome back to Mother Earth. This is why I said theoretically (cause I don't see anyone on here raising their hand to screenwrite the story) if it's a feature, it would have to be someone who can open a film. The film industry is a business first and art comes second, or did you not see the crap this summer rolled out and figured that out for yourself? The people you will theoretically go to for the MONEY (yeah let's not forget the finances people) are going to ask who these African actresses are you list to them. And before you start to proselytize about making the movie with black dollars, then know that Overbrook or Magic Johnson Prod are going to ask you the same thing. Who the fuck is Aissa?

    Second, I am not ever going to be the person who feels a dark chocolate female lead should not be considered first. So don't paint me with that brush. I was picking from a roster of popular choices, because the obscure newcomer is not always a possibility (personally Beharie doesn't look "fair skinned" to me). And no, she doesn't have to be African. How many white American actresses get to play British? They have British actresses to play the part. The reason Reese Witherspoon, Anne Hathaway etc get to play those parts is because they can bring in investors as well as box office results. Is it always a guarantee ppl will come? No. However, it is a safer bet and that is what you'd be asking some financier to do...gamble his money. You think no one could find a stellar British actress to play Margaret Thatcher in this year's Iron Lady? They are talking Oscar for Meryl Streep and no one's seen the movie yet...talk about knee jerk 2011...lol...that's how much they're willing to wager that people will come see her and love it.

    LOL...btw, how the hell are you going to snark at my list when you didn't even come up with one? Strike one.

  • misha | October 1, 2011 8:50 AMReply

    Wait just a second, Nicole Beharie is light-skinned? You've lost me, AV. LOL Certainly, she's not the darkest woman but not exactly light-skinned, I don't think. In any case, if I were to pick an black American actress I'd go with Naturi over Nicole. Or perhap Emayatzy Corinealdi...she'd be another good choice.

  • BluTopaz | October 1, 2011 8:31 AMReply

    "However, the story proves to be much more complex than that"

    Which is why I don't see Sarah's story as a film, some emotions can only be told in words. I think a movie would get caught up in superfluous stuff that would take away from the story.

    This young woman is another example of how people of African heritage often adapt and flourish under the most surreal conditions. Thank you for posting.

  • sam | October 1, 2011 7:21 AMReply

    Yeah I agree Halle Berry is a great choice.

  • Darla & Mark | October 1, 2011 7:09 AMReply

    Love this story.

  • ForeignBlackChick | October 1, 2011 6:56 AMReply

    I would pick :

    Aissa Maiga
    Genevive Nnaji
    Fatou N'Diaye
    Caroline Chickezie
    Enuka Okuma

    over Nicole Beharie

  • AccidentalVisitor | October 1, 2011 5:32 AMReply

    {{{ @Accidental Visitor: No African actress can open a film. If it were going the IFC/HBO way(which it should), then yes an African. I’d like Adepero for this with Djimon Hounsou as her prospective groom. He is much older than mid-30’s, but he has magnificent skin. Nicole Beharie would be another good choice. }}}

    Wait. What? How does light-skinned Nicole Beharie who would never be mistaken for someone of pure African ancestry even come into consideration? That's like me saying Will Smith should play the groom. :)

    Maybe its just me but it seems as if African Americans have a problem with the idea of casting women with darker skin and more pronounced African features (not including Eastern Africans such as Ethipians). And Lordy if they they have kinky hair and a short hairdo we want nothing to do with them at all. Of course we don't mind if the men look like that, but the women? Hell, no. Not on the big screen. I don't lknow about the rest of you folks but I'm tired of seeing movies dealing with the slave era in which the black women look like Thandie Newton. Or we get some modern African film like tambay's fave "Viva Riva!" in which the leading female is of light complexion and looks like no other African in the entire movie.

    As for there being no African women who can open up a film I must respond that there are only a few black women period who can possibly open a film, but those ladies don't look the part of a true Yoruba princess. So maybe instead of worrying about who can open film, TPTB should give a chance to new talent who one day may be able to open a picture successfully. But such an individual won't be able to do that without getting a shot first. Everyone has to start from somewhere.

    And, I thought about Hounsou as the groom , but he is too old. Fresh blood. Please.

  • Screamwriter | October 1, 2011 5:08 AMReply

    @AccidentalVisitor

    Naturi's not African? :)

    Guess I'm a little guilty of thinking like a Hollywood producer and blurting out the name of an American actress, but why would an African actress be a better fit over an African-American, Afro-Brit, or Afro-Latina? Unlike a lot of singer-turned-actresses, I think Naughton has actual ability. She's been getting steady work and giving solid performances. Her musical background would be a plus in playing Bonetta.

  • BondGirl | October 1, 2011 4:31 AMReply

    @Accidental Visitor: No African actress can open a film. If it were going the IFC/HBO way(which it should), then yes an African. I'd like Adepero for this with Djimon Hounsou as her prospective groom. He is much older than mid-30's, but he has magnificent skin. Nicole Beharie would be another good choice.

  • AccidentalVisitor | October 1, 2011 3:23 AMReply

    Naturi, screamwriter? I don't know. Other than the fact that she is darkskinned what would she bring to the table? Shouldn't there be African actresses out there who are a better fit?

  • screamwriter | October 1, 2011 3:06 AMReply

    Naturi Naughton.

  • AccidentalVisitor | October 1, 2011 2:56 AMReply

    Fascinating, Vanessa.

    Now as shallow as this may come across, if a feature film was to be made of this woman's story who would you choose to play Sarah?

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