St Nicholas’ Church

Miss Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a West African of royal blood, was orphaned in a brutal massacre in her home country at the age of eight. She was captured and later given to Queen Victoria who, impressed by the girl’s natural regal manner and exceptional intelligence.

She was then sanctioned by the Queen to marry Captain James Davies at St Nicholas’ Church in Brighton in August, 1862, after a period which was to be spent in the town in preparation for 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. Read More »

During her subsequent time in Brighton, she lived at 17 Clifton Hill in the Montpelier area. Captain Davies was a Yoruba businessman of considerable wealth for the period, and the couple moved back to their native Africa after their wedding.

In his journal, Captain Frederick Forbes gave an account of his mission with relation to Miss Bonetta:

“I have only to add a few particulars about my extraordinary present ‘the African Child’ – 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 on the tombs of the deceased nobility. For one of these ends she has been detained at court for two years, proving, by her not having been sold to slave dealers, that she was of good family”.

“She is a perfect genius; she now speaks English well, and has a great talent for music. She has won the affections, but with 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”.

Source: Royal Pavilion, Libraries & Museums archive (Brighton Gazette August 1862)

Sara was subsequently baptised at a church in the town of Badagry, a former slave port. She died at the age of 37 in 1880 of tuberculosis. Her husband had previously been concerned about her because she appeared to have had a cough that would not go away; she was eventually diagnosed with what was termed the consumption. Her daughter by him, christened Victoria, also served as the goddaughter of the Queen of the British Empire. A great many of both her and his daughter’s descendants now live in England and Sierra Leone while a separate group of them, the aristocratic Randle family of Lagos, remains prominent in contemporary Nigeria.Read More

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Kamal Simpson talks to Clare Gittings, Learning Manager at the National Portrait Gallery, about Sarah Forbes Bonetta

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Video Transcript
In 1862 there was a special marriage here, and there was a little African girl called Sarah Forbes Bonetta.  She was an African princess and she was captured in a war in Africa and she was given to Queen Victoria as a gift. But when Sarah Forbes Bonetta got to the age of 18 she got married, and she needed permission from the Queen because she was the Queen’s child, she adopted the child, she acted as godparent to the child. She got married in St Nicholas Church, and the day of the wedding all through the week the press in Brighton there was talk of a royal wedding in Brighton. So on the day of her wedding the whole town turned up. They were in the trees, they were on the walls, they were crowded.

So crowded was it around the church that Sarah Forbes Bonetta couldn’t get into the church herself so the vicar of the church sent a message to the constable to come to clear the way.  She came in a carriage pulled by 12 pairs of grey horses and she was accompanied by 16 bridesmaids, eight of them black and eight of them white. They were  accompanied by white gentlemen with black ladies and black gentlemen with white ladies until the church was full. After she got married she had a child and she wanted to name the child Victoria after the Queen. So Sarah Forbes Bonetta wrote to Queen Victoria and asked if the child could be named after her. Queen Victoria in her diary commented that ‘I’d be delighted if the child was named after me and I’ll also act as godparent to the child.When this little girl called Victoria passed her music exam Queen Victoria granted every school teacher and every child in England a day’s holiday.

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