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Did Queen Victoria Really Adopt an Orphaned African Princess?

As with most headlines that pose a question, the answer is "no." The story of the African princess refers to Sarah Forbes Bonetta, who was brought to England from the kingdom of Dahomey (now Benin) by Captain Frederick E. Forbes. King Ghezo welcomed Forbes as a diplomat in 1850, and they exchanged gifts as was the custom. One of the gifts was a seven-year-old girl.  

Forbes was part of the Royal Navy's antislavery squadron that patrolled and captured slave ships off West Africa. Though Great Britain had been a prominent force in the transatlantic slave trade, by 1838, under Queen Victoria, parliament had abolished slavery throughout the empire.

It may seem ironic that a man opposed to slavery would accept a human as a gift, which Walter Dean Myers, in his young reader book At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England, calls “a present from the King of the blacks to the Queen of the whites.” But as Forbes wrote in his journals, to refuse her would be to sign "her death-warrant.” He believed that, "in consideration of the nature of the service I had performed, the government would consider her as the property of the Crown," so the government would take responsibility for her care. And, he was immediately impressed by her brightness and charm, calling her "a perfect genius.” He renamed and baptized the young girl after himself and his ship, the HMS Bonetta. From that moment forward, she was known as Sarah Forbes Bonetta.

Sarah was not a princess, and she was not raised by Queen Victoria. But she was the property of the Queen, who felt a special fondness for the girl. Read about the unique life of Sarah Forbes Bonetta at Mental Floss.


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