“For Sarah the African Princess”: remembering the life & legacy of Queen Victoria’s Nigerian Goddaughter

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Sarah The Veil of Mourning, Dagmar Van Weeghel, Courtesy of Rademakers Gallery
Sarah The Veil of Mourning, Dagmar Van Weeghel, Courtesy of Rademakers Gallery

We are 9th November 1850. Captain Frederick Forbes has come to Windsor to present Queen Victoria with a “gift”. The “gift” is a smart eight years old girl, newly named Sarah Forbes Bonetta (after the Captain and the Royal navy boat transporting her). At such a tender age, she has already survived a lot of tragedies. Born into a Yoruba Royal Family (current day Nigeria – West Africa), she lost her parents and had been held captive for two years in the neighbouring Kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin – West Africa), after their attack on her village. Dahomey is where the captain is coming from. He was sent there, on a mission to convince King Ghezo to renounce trading slaves. In response, the King gifted Queen Victoria with one.

Pictures of Sarah Davies nee Forbes Bonetta, Camille Sylvi, 1862
Left: Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Camille Sylvi, 1862. Right: James Davies and Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Camille Silvy, 1862

Sarah became Queen Victoria’s protégée and Goddaughter. The Queen took responsibility for her upbringing and sent her first, to live with wealthy English families and then to Sierra Leone for health reasons. Later, Queen Victoria also found Sarah a suitor, Captain James Davies, whom she married in Brighton before moving back to Africa.

“For Sarah, The African Princess” Series

Sarah Queen, Dagmar Van Weeghel, Courtesy of Rademakers Gallery
Sarah Queen, Dagmar Van Weeghel, Courtesy of Rademakers Gallery

Fast-forward to November 2017, and the photographer and filmmaker Dagmar Van Weeghel presented her latest work, “For Sarah, The African Princess” at the LagosPhoto Festival. The selected six pictures were consistent with the theme of the 8Th edition of the Festival: “Regime of Truth”, an exploration of the visual representation of Africa.

Details about Sarah’s life history are still sketchy. Little is known about “how she navigated the world as a young girl” and how she felt about her life. Despite Queen Victoria’s generosity, she was not “free” to make her own choices. For Dagmar, what transpires from the historical pictures is a sense of “power and pride”, “resilience” and “loneliness”. It is this range of mixed emotions that the moving series of photographs portrays so magnificently.

In what feels as much as an artistic quest as a historical redress, the stunning photographs “pay tribute to” Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s extraordinary and eventful life. The set up of the festival, large-scale pictures displayed in public spaces, has made the story accessible to a wider audience in the country of her birth. Sarah’s journey has gone full circle with her story brought “back home” for the first time.

Sarah Gaze, Dagmar Van Weeghel part of "for Sarah, The African Princess" series
Sarah Gaze, Dagmar Van Weeghel, Courtesy of Rademakers Gallery

Remarkably, Sarah’s odyssey continues in life and death. This latest posthumous journey started two years earlier in 2015 when Dagmar “accidentally” found out about her incredible life and soon after, published the first pictures of the series. “For Sarah, The African Princess” will continue to travel and be shown around the world, extending a little bit further the reach of Sarah. It is an extraordinary feat for the one nicknamed “The Black Princess”, who must have been a unique sight in Queen Victoria’s court and yet kept out of the history books and ignored for over 150 years. The series bends the traditional trajectory of a history that has all but erased Sarah, to open up a space for her to be reintroduced into the overall narrative again; thus fulfilling one of Van Weeghel’s ambitions. She wants “the world to see [Sarah], to know her story and her legacy.”

Van Weeghel’s work

The series “For Sarah, The African Princess,” is in continuity with Van Weeghel’s body of work. She narrates through her lenses, the real-life experience of the women of the African diaspora, documenting visually, their struggles to form new identities and fit in. She works mainly in collaboration with women whose experiences echo the stories she is telling. “For Sarah, The African Princess”, she partnered with Keila Barbara, who was herself a young orphan in Uganda, strived to make a name for herself, (finishing 1st runner-up at Miss Uganda pageant in 2011) before immigrating to Europe. Keila became the contemporary face of Sarah, to depict her self-reliance and her resilience in the face of adversity, qualities both women shared.

Van Weeghel’s previous work, “Mombasa Blues”, (part of the series “About Lish”) exhibited at the Gallery of African Art explored a similar theme. The inner turmoil experienced by those with dual identities. It is a topic the photographer can intimately relate to as she bore witness to her own husband’s struggles to navigate the murky waters of dual traditions, cultures and customs.

Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s story is fascinating, and Van Weeghel continues her research into her life in the UK, in Lagos, in Sierra Leone and in Madeira where she was buried. Meanwhile, Sarah has been featured in the National Portrait Gallery’s Black Chronicles exhibition (organised in partnership with Autograph ABP) in 2016 and ITV’s Drama Series “Victoria” in 2017. Both the show and the TV program have stirred up a lot more interest in her life, and there is no doubt that new details will emerge. For now, Van Weeghel is “hoping to continue the story and carry on her legacy”. So I am looking forward to seeing what may come after this first series “For Sarah, The African Princess”.


This article is part of the new series Art.Matters.  People have questioned interest and investment in Art in Africa because there are far more pressing issues to deal with. You know, the usual: Health, Education, Security … the list goes on. We see Art as a fundamental component in shaping the future of the continent. It asks thought-provoking and uncomfortable questions, shapes the culture. Art speaks to the way we look at our heritage and set out to face the future.

The conversation continues online :

Source: https://owlcation.com/humanities/Queen-Victorias-Black-Princess

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