At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England

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In 1849, a young African girl came within moments of being sacrificed in the bloody Dahomian ritual called the "watering of the graves." But Commander Frederick E. Forbes, the young British captain of the HMS Bonetta, intervened, provoking Dahomian King Gezo to offer the girl as a gift to Queen Victoria instead. Forbes named the girl Sarah Forbes Bonetta and took her back to England, where she became Queen Victoria's protege. Walter Dean Myers discovered the kernel of Sarah's story in a bundle of original letters...
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Overview

In 1849, a young African girl came within moments of being sacrificed in the bloody Dahomian ritual called the "watering of the graves." But Commander Frederick E. Forbes, the young British captain of the HMS Bonetta, intervened, provoking Dahomian King Gezo to offer the girl as a gift to Queen Victoria instead. Forbes named the girl Sarah Forbes Bonetta and took her back to England, where she became Queen Victoria's protege. Walter Dean Myers discovered the kernel of Sarah's story in a bundle of original letters he purchased from a London book dealer. From these letters, along with excerpts from Queen Victoria's diary, newspapers, and Forbes's published account of the Dahomans, Myers pieced together Sarah's life. In his unembellished narrative we learn about Sarah's capture by the slave-trading Dahomans; her rescue by Forbes; her life in England under the Forbes' care; her regular visits to the Queen; her stay at a missionary school in Sierra Leone and abrupt return to England; her marriage and early death. Yet, as horrific and miraculous as the events of Sarah's life are, Myers can only pose questions about who Sarah really was ("What were her dreams for her own future...? What images came to her as she rode in the pony cart with the royal children? How often did she think of Dahomey? Of King Gezo?"). Sarah's chatty, unprovocative letters, which hint at the upperclass Englishwoman she became, reveal nothing about her African heritage or about the traumatized girl she must have been (Myers could not even discover her African name). Ironically, this seeming weakness proves the ultimate testimony to Sarah's life-the very absence of her voice bears undeniable witness to her story.
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Editorial Reviews

Katy Kelly
Her Majesty's Request examines Bonetta's unusual life and friendship with the queen. Myers delivers the story as he found it, without embellishment or sentimental asides.
— USA Today
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Myers's (Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary) discovery of a packet of letters in a rare books shop in London planted the seeds for this fascinating biography, which reconstructs the remarkable life of Sarah Forbes Bonetta. In 1850, orphaned and held as a captive by the Dahomans in West Africa, an Egbado princess faces imminent death as part of a Dahomian sacrificial rite. When Frederick E. Forbes, captain of the British ship Bonetta and a strong opponent to the slave trade, begs that she be spared, Dahomian King Gezo offers her as a gift to Queen Victoria. Under Forbes's protection, the princess is baptized Sarah Forbes Bonetta and escorted to England; Forbes presents her to the queen, who takes an avid interest in her and provides for her education and upbringing. From the princess's life in an England far from her native shores, filled with frequent visits to the queen and royal family, to her education as a young woman of privilege at a missionary school in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to her eventual arranged marriage and early death from consumption, Myers portrays a young woman who never truly belongs. Despite her celebrity, education and proximity to royalty, Sarah remains subject to the prescribed roles for women in her day and to the queen's will--even concerning her marriage--because she possesses no independent financial means; thus the title takes on a somber double entendre. Myers sets Sarah's story within the context of daily life and culture in England, Britain's attitudes toward Africa and slavery and the growing unrest across the Atlantic that would result in the Civil War. Period etchings and photographs, many from the author's own collection, contribute to this moving and very human portrait of a princess. Ages 9-12. (Feb.)
The ALAN Review - Alan Perry
Walter Dean Myers' poignant biography of Sarah Forbes Bonetta is the riveting story of an African princess who witnessed the murder of her parents by enemy warriors. Held in captivity for two years until she was rescued by an English naval officer on the very day she was to be sacrificed, Sarah was taken to England as a "gift" for Queen Victoria. Sarah quickly became a favorite of the Queen, who arranged for her new protégée to have a foster family and a generous allowance for her care. A frequent visitor to the Queen's court, Sarah became a cherished friend of the entire royal family and remained in close contact with the royals for the rest of her life. Despite numerous hardships and obstacles throughout her life, Sarah managed to adapt to, endure, and enjoy life. A curiosity among British, the African princess was just as much an oddity among natives of the homeland to which she returned as a teacher. Sarah's story is pieced together from letters and journal entries, resulting in gaps which must be filled with surmise, but Myers tells an extraordinary tale which will intrigue young readers from middle or high school grades. A fascinating narrative of a little-known facet of Victorian history, this book is rich with illustrations, including photographs, sketches, portraits, and maps. Sarah's story will be eagerly read by students who enjoy African or English history, biography, or multicultural literature.
VOYA - Roxy Ekstrom
This book had its roots in a packet of letters offered by a small London bookshop. From that packet Myers has created a fascinating and dramatic glimpse into the life of an African princess living in Victorian England. In 1848, a very young Egbado princess watched as her parents were murdered and her village burned. Her captor, King Gezo of the Dahomans, kept her alive to be a human sacrifice. She was rescued two years later by Commander Frederick Forbes of the HMS Bonetta, a strong opponent of the slave trade in Africa. He gave Sarah her name and brought her to England where she entered into an amazing new life. Queen Victoria took an interest in the young girl, bringing her to Windsor Castle on frequent occasions. She placed Sarah under her protection, dictating many of the events that shaped Sarah's life.

Myers's well-researched book is liberally illustrated with photographs, drawings, and excerpts from the letters. He fleshes out the letters, diary entries, and dry account book lists, giving the reader a better understanding of the upper-class Victorian lifestyle that Sarah lived. The language is very clear, making it a good choice for middle schools. The format of this volume also makes it a good fit for older readers, especially those searching for high interest materials. The questions about Sarah that Myers raises in his epilogue are waiting to fuel many discussions. Illus. Photos. Maps. Biblio. Source Notes.

VOYA Codes: 5Q 3P M J S (Hard to imagine it being better written, Will appeal with pushing, Middle School-defined as grades 6 to 8, Junior High-defined as grades 7 to 9 and Senior High-defined as grades 10 to 12).

Children's Literature - Susan Hepler
ut her schooling from records, her life from society notes in the newspapers, her emotions from her own letters, and the royal viewpoint from the Queen's journal entries. While the reader longs for more than the few photos and a sketch of Sarah, Myers gains sympathy for the girl and her times with his personal telling of the story and the reader may be moved by the Queen's personal interest in Sarah and her family-Sarah's daughter Victoria was one of the Queen's last visitors before her death.
Kirkus Reviews
Working from a packet of letters found in a London bookshop, Myers reconstructs the life of one Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a child of royal African descent who was rescued by a British sea captain from a sacrificial rite in Dahomey, became a goddaughter of Queen Victoria, and grew up in a succession of upper middle-class households.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780439077620
  • Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
  • Age range: 9 - 12 Years

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