The girl who was a gift to Queen Victoria

Sarah Forbes Bonetta in 1862
Sarah Forbes Bonetta in 1862

She was West African, born of royal blood, in what’s now Nigeria in around 1843.

As Brighton’s oldest church, I imagine St Nicholas Church on Dyke Road has seen a few weddings in its time. I wonder if any brides have created quite as much as a stir, though, as Sarah Forbes Bonetta who married here in August 1862?

Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Sarah Forbes Bonetta

The wedding was a grand occasion and a big day in Brighton. Twenty year old Sarah was as close to the heart of British upper­class society as it was possible to get, and Queen Victoria herself had had a hand in making the match.

The wedding party, leaving West Hill Lodge for St Nicholas Church, consisted of no fewer than ten horse­drawn carriages, sixteen bridesmaids and a procession, according to the Brighton Gazette of "White ladies with African gentlemen, and African ladies with White gentlemen". Sarah was no ordinary aristocratic English bride, however.

She was West African, born of royal blood, in what’s now Nigeria in around 1843. Her remarkable journey to Brighton involved war, capture, imprisonment, and finally, favour from the most powerful queen in the world.

By the time she was seven, Sarah, originally called "Aina", had seen both her parents killed in inter­tribal warfare and was a prisoner of slave­trading King Gezo of Dahomey.

When she was discovered by British Navy Captain Frederick Forbes, in the region with his ship HMS Bonetta on a mission to curtail the slave trade, Sarah was facing almost certain death.

Horrified, Forbes secured her release by convincing King Gezo that the little girl could be an apt gift for Queen Victoria, "a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites". Queen Victoria received her "present" at Windsor castle on November 9 1850 and, although Sarah Forbes, may have been intended as an exotic novelty, it was clear from the start that she was a force to be reckoned with.

With a fierce intellect, speaking perfect English within weeks and possessing a musical talent that astounded everyone, Sarah quickly developed a reputation for strong opinions and the ability to hold her own in any conversation. "Far in advance of any white child of her age in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection", was Captain Forbes’opinion. A "perfect genius".

As a woman not known for weakness of mind, I imagine Queen Victoria delighted in her feisty protegee. She arranged for Sarah to have the best education available, first in Sierra Leone, then in England where she visited the Queen regularly.

It seems, the relationship that grew between them, if not one of equals, was certainly one of mutual respect and liking. As time moved on and thoughts turned towards Sarah making a decent marriage, however, it seems that she wasn’t quite as enthusiastic.

Although the suiter, businessman and philanthropist, Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, was considered perfect husband material, maybe after the dramatic events she’d lived through, Sarah didn’t like the idea of becoming a subservient Victorian wife.

But after spending some reflecting time in Clifton Terrace, Brighton, Sarah decided to go ahead. Marriage didn’t clip her wings and Sarah quickly threw herself into a teaching career, first in Sierra Leone, then Lagos where the couple settled with their three children. Queen Victoria happily became god­mother to Victoria, Sarah’s first daughter, paying for her education.

Sadly, in 1880, while only in her thirties, Sarah who had shown such resilience in her life, succumbed to tuberculosis.

Queen Victoria continued to support the young Victoria who was a welcome visitor to the royal household for the rest of her life, although unfortunately little remembered in history books today.