Saturday, February 24, 2018

Etiquette and an African Princess

West African Royalty, Sara Forbes Bonetta, on her wedding day with her Groom, in 1862. Queen Victoria had raised her as a ‘Goddaughter’ in the British middle class. This description is of the wedding; “The wedding party, which arrived from West Hill Lodge, Brighton in ten carriages and pairs of grays, was made up of White ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with White gentlemen. There were sixteen bridesmaids.”
Sarah Forbes Bonetta was born a child of Yoruba Royalty. She was a Princess of the Egbado clan in West Africa. The army of the Kingdom of Dahomey brutally attacked her village when Sarah, was only 4 or 5 years old though, slaughtering her siblings and decapitating her parents. The now orphaned Princess was kept as a slave in the court of Dahomey King Ghezo. The King, a notorious slave trader, had plans for Aina (Sarah’s birth name). She was to become a human sacrifice.

During a visit to King Ghezo, Royal Navy Captain Frederick E. Forbes was able to rescue the young Princess. On a mission to convince Ghezo to abandon the slave trade, Forbes bargained for the Sarah’s life. He persuaded the King to give her to Queen Victoria. Later, in his journal, he wrote: “She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.” Forbes re-named Sarah after his ship, the HMS Bonetta and his own name. The Princess Aina became “Sarah Forbes Bonetta” and they sailed for England. 
Queen Victoria and Sarah Forbes Bonetta, as portrayed on ITV’s series, “Victoria” – “… back in Shakespeare's day, you could have met people from west Africa and even Bengal in the same London streets. Of course, there were fewer, and they drew antipathy as well as fascination from the Tudor inhabitants, who had never seen black people before. But we know they lived, worked and intermarried, so it is fair to say that Britain's first black community starts here. There had been black people in Britain in Roman times, and they are found as musicians in the early Tudor period in England and Scotland. But the real change came in Elizabeth I's reign, when, through the records, we can pick up ordinary, working, black people, especially in London. Shakespeare himself, a man fascinated by 'the other', wrote several black parts - indeed, two of his greatest characters are black - and the fact that he put them into mainstream entertainment reflects the fact that they were a significant element in the population of London. Employed especially as domestic servants, but also as musicians, dancers and entertainers, their numbers ran to many hundreds, maybe even more. And let's be clear - they were not slaves. In English law, it was not possible to be a slave in England (although that principle had to be re-stated in slave trade court cases in the late 18th Century, like the Somersett case of 1772). In Elizabeth's reign, the black people of London were mostly free. Some indeed, both men and women, married native English people.” –BBC History Magazine
The first meeting between Queen Victoria and Sarah was at Windsor Castle in November of 1850. Opposed to racism, and impressed by Sarah’s intelligence
and manners, Victoria recognized her Royal blood by calling her a “Princess.” Queen Victoria soon became Sarah’s “Godmother” and invited her regularly to Windsor Castle. Victoria paid for her education and upbringing after finding guardians for the young Princess. Captain Forbes died a year later, around the same time that Sarah developed a chronic cough, attributed to the climate in England. In an attempt to improve her health, Victoria sent Sarah to Sierra Leone in the hope that her health would improve in the warmer temperatures.

Sarah excelled academically, but was unhappy living in Sierra Leone, and attending the church missionary society school there. Queen Victoria arranged for Sarah’s return in 1855, when she was about 12 years old. She lived in Gillingham, with the Schoen family. Remaining a part of Queen Victoria’s life, Sarah was a guest at her daughter Princess Vicky’s wedding.Sarah received a marriage proposal from Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, when she was 19. He was a wealthy Yoruban businessman, already a widower and more than 10 years her senior. Initially turning down the proposal, Sarah soon agreed to the marriage. Victoria naturally approved the match. Like other young women her age, Sarah had no financial independence if she remained unmarried.

A large wedding in Brighton followed, with guests both white and black. Much happier than Sarah had initially presumed she’d be, the couple moved to Africa. They had three children: Victoria, named after the Queen, Arthur and Stella. The family returned to England in 1867. Smitten with her young namesake, Queen Victoria not only became Godmother to little Victoria, she paid for her education, as well. Sadly, Sarah died of tuberculosis at the age of 37, on Portugal’s island of Madeira.

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia 

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