Bonetta was captured in 1848 during a slave-hunt war by the infamous King Ghezo of Dahomey when she was just eight years old. Her tribe was massacred and she was intended as a human sacrifice.
She was rescued in 1850 by Captain Frederick Forbes of the Royal Navy, on behalf of the Britain which was campaigning to stop the slave trade. He persuaded King Ghezo to present the girl to Victoria as, ‘a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites’.
She took the captain’s name and that of his ship, the Bonetta, and Forbes was impressed by her intelligence. He wrote in his journal that:
‘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.’
She was presented to Queen Victoria who was impressed by her exceptional intelligence and her education was entrusted to the Church Missionary Society. However, Bonetta’s health suffered in the English climate and in 1851 she returned to Africa to attend the Female Institution in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
She came back to England aged 20 and married James Pinson Labulo Davies in Brighton in 1862. He was a wealthy merchant of Sierra Leonean origin and the wedding was a grand affair.
The couple lived in Brighton for a while but returned to Africa and the former slave port of Badagry before settling in Lagos where Davies was a member of the Legislative Council from 1872 to 1874.
Bonetta gave birth soon after her marriage and was granted permission to name her daughter Victoria after the queen who also became the child’s godmother.
Bonetta’s suffered from TB and in 1880 she went to Madeira to convalesce but died soon afterwards. Her daughter was in England at the time and Queen Victoria wrote:
‘Saw poor Victoria Davies, my black godchild, who learnt this morning of the death of her dear mother.’
Bonetta was buried on the island of Funchal and Queen Victoria gave an annuity to her daughter who was a regular visitor to the royal household throughout her life.
Below is a video from the National Portrait Gallery about her life.