15 minutes of fame | Hannah Cusworth chooses Aina Forbes Bonetta
As part of our series exploring lost or lesser-known figures from history who deserve their 15 minutes of fame, Hannah Cusworth tells Elinor Evans why she chose Aina Forbes Bonetta
Who was Aina Forbes Bonetta?
Aina Forbes Bonetta, also known as Sarah, was a Yoruba woman from West Africa. After becoming orphaned, she was transported to Britain and became a ward of Queen Victoria.
Having grown up in Brighton, Hannah Cusworth recalls having cried when she became aware of Aina’s story. She explains that knowing a black presence in Brighton not only stretched before the 20th-century, but as early as the Victorian period “really hit me”.
Aina was orphaned as a child and enslaved by King Ghezo of Dahomey. Frederick Forbes, a naval leader in the West African Squadron, was sent to encourage King Ghezo to end his involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. It was on this diplomatic mission that Aina was given to Forbes as a “gift”, which he accepted on behalf of Queen Victoria.
Despite his surprise, Forbes accepted on Queen Victoria’s behalf. He named Aina ‘Sarah Forbes Bonetta’, after both himself and his ship. It was then, in around 1850, that Aina entered British historical records.
Queen Victoria agreed to, effectively, adopt Aina. She took a liking to the young girl and described her as being of “high intelligence”. But there was a racially driven idea, Cusworth explains, that the cold and wet climate in Britain was harmful to black people’s health.
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As a result, Aina returned to West Africa and studied at a Church Mission school in Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was reported that she was unhappy and was later sent to Gillingham in Kent. There she lived with a family who had missionary connections, and Cusworth says these were “very happy times” in Aina’s life.
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When Aina reached her late teens, she was moved to Brighton where a Miss Welsh would oversee her introduction into British society. A marital arrangement was soon made with James Davies, a West African businessman. This was not, sadly, a union Aina desired; Cusworth refers to a letter she wrote at the time, in which she strongly objected to her upcoming marriage.
Still, the wedding went ahead and its lavish details, including ten horse drawn carriages, drew a huge press interest. Cusworth highlights that in the marriage record, Aina does not use her British given name ‘Sarah’. Historians have interpreted this choice as “Aina asserting herself and her identity” within the confines of marriage and Victorian society.
Soon after the wedding, the couple moved to Sierra Leone, and would later live in Lagos. Their firstborn was named after Queen Victoria and she also became a goddaughter of the queen. The couple had a number of children together. However, it was not long before Aina contracted tuberculosis. She moved to Madeira in hope of the better climate curing her complaints, but died there in August 1880 at the age of only 37.
Cusworth notes the remarkable nature of Aina’s story, but also the broader importance of acknowledging these lives. They highlight, she explains, that contrary to what is often presented, black people did not only exist in the past as slaves, but were also businesspeople, traders, and merchants. Cusworth recalls being surprised to learn that Aina and James’s firstborn daughter, Victoria, was educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. Whilst this was a relatively unusual occurrence, it provides evidence of black children being taught at Britain’s top private schools in the Victorian era and makes the understanding of this period “more nuanced”.
Why does Aina deserve her 15 minutes of fame?
The presence of black people in Britain is often presented as existing since the Windrush in 1948 but, Cusworth explains, it’s a “much larger and longer story”. This period between the end of slavery and Windrush does not have a strong presence in the public consciousness and, therefore, is not often discussed.
Aina and James’s story also evidences the uncoerced movement of black people post abolition. Cusworth explains that this tells us about West Africa's historical connections with Britain, and the dynamism of Lagos which rose to a black entrepreneurial hub.
She says, “there were Sierra Leonean merchants, often either enslaved people themselves or the children of slaves, and they set themselves up as businessmen in Sierra Leone and then in Lagos, Nigeria. And they were moving between Britain and West Africa.”
Cusworth hopes that Aina’s story “might inspire young British historians of Nigerian heritage to find out more about these stories, and to make them much better known in British public life.”
Hannah Cusworth is a PhD researcher with English Heritage, and an history education consultant