Per a statement, the painting—created by artist Hannah Uzor—is based on a photograph currently housed at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It’s one of a series of works commissioned by English Heritage to spotlight historical black figures whose stories have previously been overlooked.
“What I find interesting about Sarah is that she challenges our assumptions about the status of black women in Victorian Britain,” says Uzor, whose family and children share Bonetta’s Nigerian heritage, in the statement. “ … To see Sarah return to Osborne, her godmother’s home, is very satisfying and I hope my portrait will mean more people discover her story.”
Born into a prominent Yoruba family in 1843, Bonetta was just 5 years old when a rival king, Gezo of Dahomey (located in what is now Benin), defeated her tribe. As Caroline Bressey, a cultural and historical geographer at University College London, wrote in a 2005 journal article, Gezo killed the young girl’s parents and enslaved her, forcing her to fulfill “whatever role was required of her” at the Dahomey court.
“To see Sarah return to Osborne, her godmother’s home, is very satisfying and I hope my portrait will mean more people discover her story.” Artist Hannah Uzor pic.twitter.com/hi1bEQQAkt— English Heritage (@EnglishHeritage) October 7, 2020
Bonetta ended up in England as the result of a failed diplomatic mission. In 1850, British Captain Frederick Forbes tried—and failed—to convince Gezo to abandon his role in the slave trade. The king gifted Bonetta to the captain as an act of conciliation; Forbes, in turn, brought the orphaned child back to his home country, renaming her after himself and the ship on which they’d arrived.
“Where do you start? Her story is an extraordinary one,” Anna Eavis, curatorial director of English Heritage, tells the Guardian’s Mark Brown. “Through her life we can also see a number of interesting and quite uncomfortable things around colonial attitudes to her.”
Upon reaching England, Forbes wrote to Victoria, asking her to take Bonetta “under her protection,” according to Bressey. The queen agreed, and after meeting the 7-year-old in November 1850, penned a journal entry praising her as “sharp and intelligent.”
Over the years, Victoria supported Bonetta by paying for her education and taking an interest in her and her family, Eavis tells BBC News.
In 1862, Bonetta married James Davies, a wealthy merchant from Sierra Leone whose parents had once been enslaved. Their union, said historian David Olusoga in a 2019 episode of the BBC Sounds podcast “The Essay,” was widely viewed as a symbol of “the perceived accomplishments of Britain’s civilizing mission.” In the words of one contemporary newspaper, “This wedding of two Anglicized, wealthy, well-connected Africans was proof of the successes that philanthropists and the missionary had over the prejudices of pride and blood.”
The couple had three children, the eldest of whom they named Victoria. When Bonetta died—likely of tuberculosis—in 1880 at the age of 37, the queen comforted her namesake at Osborne; per the Times’ David Sanderson, Victoria, who also served as the younger Victoria’s godmother, later paid for her education.
Eavis tells the Times that Bonetta appears to have been a popular member of Brighton society. An accomplished young woman, she spoke French and English and was reportedly “very musical.”
The only surviving record in Bonetta’s own hand is a signature affixed to her marriage certificate.
“She wrote her given name … but then prefixed it with Aina,” her probable birth name, says Eavis to the Times. “That is really moving; it is the only word we have from her.”
Curators hope that Uzor’s portrait of Bonetta, as well as upcoming commissions including likenesses of Septimius Severus, an African-born Roman emperor who strengthened Hadrian’s Wall, and James Chappell, a 17th-century servant who saved the life of his employer, will help highlight important black individuals in English history.
“There are a number of black figures from the past who have played significant roles at some of the historic sites in our care but their stories are not very well known,” says Eavis in the statement. “Starting with Sarah, our portraits project is one way we’re bringing these stories to life and sharing them with our visitors.”