A Woman to Know: Sara Forbes Bonetta

She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites. — Captain Frederick E. Forbes

(image via National Portrait Gallery)

In 1848, a tribal war in Nigeria laid waste to Yoruba villages and families. Five-year-old Princess Aina lost her parents and her home. The conquering King Ghezo enslaved her, preparing to kill her in a sacrificial rite — until British Navy commander Frederick E. Forbes intervened. Captain Forbes persuaded the king that sparing the child slave and "gifting her" to Queen Victoria would bode well for his tribe's relationship with the United Kingdom. King Ghezo agreed, and Forbes brought Aina aboard his ship bound for England, the HMS Bonetta. Once aboard, he taught her English and renamed her "Sara Forbes Bonetta."

When she debuted at court, the teenage Sara impressed Queen Victoria with her brilliant intellect and elegant manners. The Queen decreed that Sara would be raised as her goddaughter and cared for by a noble family in the countryside. For the next two decades of her life, Sara traveled between England, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, attending royal functions as the Queen's goddaughter. When she died of tuberculosis in 1880, her Yoruba husband erected an eight-foot-tall monument in Lagos, Nigeria, dedicated to "Princess Sara."

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