*The beginning section of part two of this episode, the story of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, has the strongest Little Ears warning we’ve ever had. Adults, please preview this before kids (or really, anyone who is sensitive to violent content) listen. You can pick her story back up at the 48:00 minute mark.*
After our discussion about the heritage of Queen Charlotte, we decided to divide and conquer with two mini-episodes on aristocratic women of color in the Georgian and Victorian eras.
Susan starts with the tale of a woman with a double societal prejudice whammy: She was both Black and born out of wedlock. Dido Elizabeth Belle was the daughter of an aristocratic Navy Captain and an enslaved woman. Her father, Captain John Lindsay, did some things right, while he couldn’t marry Dido’s mom, he did support her and made sure that Dido was raised properly…with his aunt and uncle.
Most people know of Dido from a portrait of her and her cousin (also raised in the same home–it was a very big house) Lady Elizabeth Murray. There were certain concessions made due to both of Dido’s heritage characteristics- but she was raised as a beloved member of this aristocratic family–not a servant, not a simple “ladies companion” but an equal…well, as equal as and when society allowed.
One of the few reasons we know anything about Dido is because of an art mystery: Who is the young woman of color in a famous painting of two aristocratic teens? Honestly? This is still a very developing story and historians are digging up new evidence of Dido’s life!
Sarah Forbes Bonetta was born Omoba Aina in 1843 in the village of Oke-Odan in modern-day West Africa. Her childhood was, in a word, horrible. There is a Little Ears warning for a reason, it was a violent and traumatic childhood for Sarah.
She was given her English name by the Naval Captain who rescued her when she was about 7 or 8 when she was given to Queen Victoria by the cruel king who had kept her captive. The Queen took the child under her wing, put her under Royal protection, made sure she was educated, and that she lived in a loving home. At one point, the Queen thought it was best for Sarah’s health to send her away to school in Sierra Leone for a few years, but she was mostly raised as part of the Forbes family AND was welcomed as a family member by Queen Victoria herself.
Sarah’s life played out very much like any aristocratic young lady, right down to the (mostly) arranged marriage. Both Sarah’s and Dido’s lives were quite unusual for the times, but we thought it was very interesting to see how they did, and did not, play to the type of noble life of the eras.
Time Travel With The History Chicks
The book by Sarah’s foster father, Captain Forbes about Dahomey and the Dahomans is available online at Google Books.
You can visit Kenwood house…either in person in London, or by clicking this link (cyber visit!)
More articles in The Guardian, Fashion History Timeline, ThoughtCo, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Frock Flicks write-up of the costumes of the 2013 movie, Belle
One of the sources about Sarah Forbes Bonetta- Ladylike in the Extreme: The Propogandism of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Britain’s “African Princess” by Megan Orr.
Like Sarah Forbes Bonetta, this gentleman also arrived in England as an orphan from an African nation, and he was buried at Windsor Castle…but his ancestors want his remains back for burial in Ethiopia. The Grio Article, Prince Alemayehu
Would you like to learn more about traditional scarifications like Sarah had? Here’s a piece about that from Unseen Benin.
If you want to learn more about the kingdom of Dahomey and the Amazons, give this Smithsonian article a read.
An article about the ships that carried enslaved people from Africa by Reuters, A terrible passage from Africa
And, finally, a mention of the hotel in Mederia where Sarah went to convalesce and passed away.http://holobooks.co.uk/update1.asp
If you’re interested in our upcoming Field Trip to London, in September (which very well could be sold out when you see this) OR if you would like to join us on the Thames River Dinner Cruise (PARTY!) while we’re there take a click over to Like Minds Travel! We hope to meet up with you there!