As I write this, I think about the connotations of a “gift.” Aina was “gifted” to Queen Victoria, who renamed her Sara Forbes Bonnetta.

Aina was a human like the rest of us, not an object to gift. 

Before she was commodified as a gift to Queen Victoria, and had her name changed to better appeal to English standards, Aina was just as royal. She was born in 1843 and was the daughter of Egbado (Yewa) royalty, a subgroup within the Yorùbá ethnic group but quickly became an orphan at the age of 5, after her parents’ death in a war with the Kingdom of Dahomey.

Before colonizers divided African countries, there were a multitude of ethnic groups, empires, and kingdoms.

The Kingdom of Dahomey is based now in modern-day Benin. Aina’s elite status didn’t serve her well in this instance. She was taken captive and held as a state prisoner by King Gezo of Dahomey.

[Image description: Portrait of Sara Forbes Bonnetta] Via English Heritage

Her status as an Egbado princess presented her with an aura of importance and eloquence. But, mind you, it was believed she was captured around age 6 or 7.

In 1850, she was rescued by Captain Frederick E. Forbes of the Royal Navy whilst he visited the Kingdom of Dahomey on behalf of the British Empire.

Now, pause.

A colonizer ‘rescuing’ a young African girl, that wouldn’t sit right with me at all. 

But Forbes came to Dahomey with hopes of ensuring the Kingdom of Dahomey stopped participating in the Atlantic slave trade. Yet, King Gezo instantly refused this and offered Aina as a gift.

Fortunately for Aina, Forbes accepted the offer out of fear for her safety as Aina was more than likely to be sacrificed at the traditional Dahomeyan human sacrifice ceremony.

So he quite literally saved her life. Maybe, in this instance, her rescue was the right thing.

Once King Gezo accepted Captain Forbes’ offer, Aina was immediately shipped to England with the captain. Being the diplomatic exchange between the Kingdom of Dahomey and the British Empire, her name was stripped. Instead, she was named Sara Forbes Bonnetta, after the captain and the ship she traveled from Dahomey to England, HMS Bonnetta.

Before being taken to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Bonnetta lived with Captain Forbes and his family.

Once introduced to Queen Victoria, the Queen was smitten with Bonnetta and described her as “sharp and intelligent”. She was loved so much by the Queen that she became her goddaughter. Following this, Queen Victoria paid for her education in Gillingham and later in Sierra Leone. 

Shortly after her arrival in England in 1851, Aina developed a chronic cough because of the difference in climate. She was then sent to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to complete her education. Being Queen Victoria’s goddaughter awarded Sara with a number of privileges.
From getting an education to having shelter to being clothed, especially considering the nature of the Victorian era. In 1855, when she was 12, she returned to England at the request of the Queen.
Later, she married a rich Nigerian merchant, Captain James Davies, who descended from liberated slaves and had a daughter named after godmother, Queen Victoria. She lived the rest of her life in Lagos until moving to Funchal, Portugal where she died of tuberculosis.

It’s believed that it was the change in climate that caused her death.

Captain Forbes once said she was “far in advance of any white child of her age in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection.” But, this means nothing. Her race shouldn’t have had any impact on her aptness or her abilities. 

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  • Bashirat Oladele

    Bashirat is a London-based culture writer. She is a current Law student whose work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan,, Digital Spy, The Boar and more. Bashirat has also been featured in British Vogue and is an award winning community champion. Her writing is not limited to just digital forms of journalism but has been featured in print across different magazines and her student paper, The Boar.