Sarah Forbes Bonetta: biography, migration and the historical agenda

I gave a paper last year debating the use of Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s biography over time.  Sarah’s story reads like a novel: a young girl who was ‘adopted’ by Queen Victoria, after a traveller to West Africa brought her back to England, her life story demonstrated the movement possible between Europe and Africa.  After arrival in Britain she was sent back to Africa (to Sierra Leone) to attend a mission school for girls.  She then returned to Britain, and appears to have been set up with a self-made successful businessman, James Davies.  After their marriage, she returned to the West coast with Davies, settling in Lagos and establishing a family who continue to be influential today.

Sarah’s story can be tracked through a range of primary material.  She is described in an explorer’s books, national and local newspapers, and even the royal archives.  Her life provides a contrast to the many disenfranchised people who left no papers or life history records to enable a detailed reconstruction of their experiences.

One of my conclusions from the paper was that Sarah’s own views appeared very rarely as part of the discussion, partly because they were not part of these institutional records. So newspaper descriptions of her wedding survive, but no record of what she said or thought of these reports. Images do survive, including a series with her husband, James Davies.  This leaves the historian with much to say about the perception of some Victorians about Sarah, but little about what Sarah herself thought about her school in Sierra Leone, or her return to Britain and subsequent marriage.

With permission from

With permission from

I have found it easy to think of global travel as a ‘new’ thing, a feature of the last century, if that. Yet in teaching a course on migration and Africa to students I came across repeated examples of migrants like Sarah covering substantial distances before planes and scheduled holiday sailings, and found myself readjusting my assumptions. Julia Clancy Smith’s account of Tunis uses one diverse city on the North African coast to demonstrate multiple experiences of migration.   Amitav Ghosh’s memoir of research in Egypt discusses using ancient correspondence of migrants. Ghosh’s travellers moved between Egypt, India, East Africa, Syria, Morocco and Spain in the 11th century. Yet it is the survival of written evidence that is noteworthy, rather than the moves they document.

Somehow individuals’ stories seem to strike me particularly, as if it is through their eyes I ‘see’ what it is to move, in a way that statistics fail to do.  So Sarah becomes an attractive figure for a narrative about personal experience of migration, of the range of reasons that people move.

In using Sarah’s biography to make a wider point about history (or histories), I am by no means alone. Sarah has been widely written about,  and her face or name may even be familiar.  She has been used repeatedly in educational campaigns, from abolition to black history month / week.  One of the reasons I was able to write about her was that so much material has been published, from educational videos by museums, to digitised newspaper articles.   Whilst to me Sarah speaks about the pain and difficulty of moving between worlds, of moving because of family and finance and health to places that might otherwise be chosen, this is not the only perspective.

However, in ‘using’ Sarah’s narrative in this way, I effectively come full circle, enrolling her in a historical agenda much as those who have written about her before.  Nine months after writing the conference paper I wonder if this process is inevitable or if it is possible to work with biographical accounts and do justice to the individual’s priorities. This is particularly because The Feminist Press have published a small collection of Sarah’s letters as part of their ‘Women Writing Africa’ series.

Readers interested in finding out more about Sarah may wish to consult:

Bressey, C. (2005). Of Africa’s brightest ornaments: a short biography of Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Social and Cultural Geography 6(2), 253-266

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4 replies

  1. The biography “At Her Magisty’s Request” includes letters she personally wrote and you can read how she felt. It’s very clear that she was uninterested in getting married and that though she called the queen Mama, she wanted more freedom than the time period allowed women to have.

  2. Thanks for your comment. It’s great to read your feedback.

    This was only a very brief blog post, and Sara’s life was long and complex. I am aware of the biography, but it is not an academic study, nor are the letters reproduced in full. The Feminist Press publication WOMEN WRITING AFRICA, VOLUME II, Edited by Esi Sutherland Addy and Aminata Diaw, covering ‘The West and the Sahel’ does reproduce two of the letters (in case of interest). I continue to hope that the letters will be donated to a public institution and made digitally accessible.

    And of course Zadie Smith’s new novel ‘Swing Time’ will hopefully bring Sara to a whole new audience.


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