At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England
Walter Dean Meyers
In 1849, a young African girl came within moments of being sacrificed in the bloody Dahomian ritual called the “watering of the graves.” But Commander Frederick E. Forbes, the young British captain of the HMS Bonetta, intervened, provoking Dahomian King Gezo to offer the girl as a gift to Queen Victoria instead. Forbes named the girl Sarah Forbes Bonetta and took her back to England, where she became Queen Victoria’s protege. Walter Dean Myers discovered the kernel of Sarah’s story in a bundle of original letters he purchased from a London book dealer. From these letters, along with excerpts from Queen Victoria’s diary, newspapers, and Forbes’s published account of the Dahomans, Myers pieced together Sarah’s life. In his unembellished narrative we learn about Sarah’s capture by the slave-trading Dahomans; her rescue by Forbes; her life in England under the Forbes’ care; her regular visits to the Queen; her stay at a missionary school in Sierra Leone and abrupt return to England; her marriage and early death. Yet, as horrific and miraculous as the events of Sarah’s life are, Myers can only pose questions about who Sarah really was (“What were her dreams for her own future…? What images came to her as she rode in the pony cart with the royal children? How often did she think of Dahomey? Of King Gezo?”). Sarah’s chatty, unprovocative letters, which hint at the upperclass Englishwoman she became, reveal nothing about her African heritage or about the traumatized girl she must have been (Myers could not even discover her African name). Ironically, this seeming weakness proves the ultimate testimony to Sarah’s life-the very absence of her voice bears undeniable witness to her story.