Queen Victoria was a bitch to shop for. I mean, what do you get the woman who has everything? And by “everything”, I don’t just mean “enough socks”. I mean “a quarter of the known world and rather a lot of rubies”.
But one fine day in 1851, somewhere off the coast of West Africa, Captain Frederick E Forbes of the Royal Navy was on a mission to quash the thriving human trade along the so-called “slave coast”. It was there, in the kingdom of Dahomey (modern-day Benin), where he happened across a young girl called Ina, a Nigerian princess. The girl had been captured by King Ghezo of Dahomey after he slaughtered her family, and because of her noble blood she was intended not as a slave, but as a human sacrifice. Captain Forbes was having none of it.
“She’ll do nicely for Her Majesty!” thought Forbes, already planning how to re-gift the weasel-pelt slippers he’d already – somewhat foolishly – purchased for her in the back room of a pub. “Wrap her up!” he said.
And so the eight-year-old Ina sailed to England aboard Forbes’ ship, the Bonetta, to be presented to the Queen of the United Kingdom, the Empress of India, etc etc. On the way, she was re-named Sara Forbes Bonetta, she learned English and impressed the socks off her rescuers with her composure and intelligence. Said Forbes of his new charge:
She is far in advance of any white child of her age, in aptness of learning, and strength of mind and affection.
I’m sure Miss Forbes Bonetta could scarcely believe her luck (aside from having dead parents and being kidnapped twice in the same year, that is). Not for her a senseless death to please a marauding king! Not for her a life of slavery! No! Her fate was to be whisked away from her homeland to live with rich white people and spend the rest of her life doing whatever they told her to, which isn’t like slavery at all, because there were plenty of clean frocks and really top-notch nibbles.
Queen Victoria was most pleased with her gift, and remarked upon Sara’s countenance, bearing and keen mind. She promptly adopted her as a god-daughter and sent her off to become educated at a mission school in Sierra Leone, which is the 1850’s Rich Royal Person’s equivalent of saying “umm… thanks. I don’t suppose you kept the receipt?”
Four years later, the Queen ordered the now 12-year-old Sara to return to England, because a rescued African not-really-a-slave is for life, not just for Christmas. Sara was plonked into the care of a nice middle-class couple in Kent.
In 1962, Sara’s marriage was arranged to James Pinston Labulo Davies, a wealthy Nigerian living in England. The wedding was a grand affair in Brighton, after which the couple moved back to Africa and had a daughter named Victoria, who was also adopted as a god-daughter by the Queen*.
Ever since her transplantation from Nigeria to Britain, Sara suffered from a persistent cough. She travelled to Madeira in 1880 for the healing climate, but died of tuberculosis shortly afterwards, at age 37.
In many ways, Sara’s life was one of privilege – especially when one considers she could have been burned to death by a crazy king at age eight. In other ways, Sara was merely a possession of a rich and powerful old boiler who also had lots of rubies. One could spend hours agonising over the tragedy of viewing humans as consumer goods, the astounding racism, the cultural insensitivity, the blatant materialism and the haughty imperialism of it all.
But hours probably wouldn’t be long enough.
*Queen Victoria had around 60 god-children during her reign, as well as nine of her own kids. Writing Christmas cards was a nightmare.