A new portrait of an enslaved Yoruba girl who became a gift to the Queen of England is on display

Before being known as Queen Victoria’s goddaughter, Sarah Forbes Bonetta had her own royal life. She was the daughter of an African chief before she was captured and gifted to the Queen of England in 1850. Her story is currently told by English Heritage, a charity that runs over 400 historic sites in England.

As part of its new project to shine a light on forgotten black stories and figures in British history, English Heritage has unveiled a portrait of Bonetta, originally named Aina. The portrait, created by artist Hannah Uzor, was commissioned on Wednesday and is based on a photograph of Bonetta in her wedding dress, which hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The painting will hang throughout October (Black History Month) at Osborne House – Queen Victoria’s home – where Bonetta spent time with the monarch before her death.

“To see Sarah return to Osborne, her godmother’s home, is very satisfying, and I hope my portrayal will help more people learn about her story,” Uzor said in a statement.

“What I find interesting about Sarah is that she challenges our assumptions about the status of black women in Victorian Britain. I was also drawn to her because of the parallels to my own family and children, who share Sarah’s Nigerian heritage.

The portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Credit: English Heritage

Born into a West African royal dynasty, Bonetta was captured by King Gezo of Dahomey during a slave-hunting war in 1848. Her parents were killed during the war and, as the daughter of an African chieftain, Bonetta was held captive as a state. prisoner.

Being the princess of the Egbado clan of the Yoruba people, she had to be presented to an important visitor or sacrificed after the death of a minister or official to become their assistant in the outside world. In June 1850, when she was about eight years old, Bonetta was rescued by Captain Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy while visiting Dahomey as an emissary of the British government. Forbes asked the King for the baby girl to be given to Queen Victoria as a gift.

“She would be a gift from the black king to the white queen,” Forbes said. The king granted her request and she was brought to England. She was given the names Forbes Bonetta, after the captain and the ship.

Bonetta initially stayed with the Forbes family, before being taken to Windsor Castle on November 9, 1850. She was received by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Queen turned Bonetta over to the Church Missionary Society and paid for her education.

Bonetta, a year later, developed a cough believed to be caused by the British climate. The Queen arranged for her to be sent to Sierra Leone for a better climate. There, Bonetta attended the Freetown Women’s Institution. But when she was 12, the Queen ordered Sarah back to England, where she was placed in the care of the Scheon family in Chatham.

Bonetta became very intelligent and developed a special talent for music. His academic prowess won the Queen’s admiration as she gave him a social allowance and allowed him regular visits to Windsor Castle.

In 1862 Bonetta married James Pinson Labulo Davies, a 31-year-old Yoruba businessman who lived in Britain. The two returned to West Africa and settled in Lagos, where her husband became a member of the Legislative Council from 1872 to 1874. Sarah also began teaching at a school in Freetown. She gave birth to a daughter and obtained permission from the Queen to name her Victoria. The queen also became his godmother.

In 1867 Sarah visited the Queen with her daughter and returned to Lagos, where she had two more children. Following the climate change between Africa and Britain, Sarah’s cough returned. She died in her forties in 1880 after suffering from tuberculosis and was buried in Funchal, Madeira.
Her daughter, who was equally brilliant, was looked after by the queen and was always allowed to visit the royal household throughout her life.

During her lifetime, Bonetta was described by Captain Forbes as “far ahead of any white child of her age in learning ability, strength of mind, and affection”.

The English Heritage project, in addition to showcasing Bonetta’s story, will also shed light on other black figures who have been overlooked, including the African-born Emperor of Rome, Septimius Severus, and Dido Belle, the biracial great-niece of Lord Mansfield.

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