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Did Queen Victoria Really Adopt an Orphaned African Princess?

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In 1850, a young naval captain named Frederick E. Forbes arrived in the African kingdom of Dahomey (today’s Benin) to see the powerful monarch King Ghezo on an antislavery mission from the British Empire. As was standard for meetings of dignitaries, gifts were exchanged. Among those given to Forbes—as a formal offering to Queen Victoria—was a 7-year-old girl.

Two years earlier, the girl’s life had been upended. Her village of Okeadan (in modern-day Nigeria) was raided, her family was killed, and she was captured as a slave. Many sources suggest that the girl was the daughter of a chief or of royal lineage, but Forbes wrote that of "her own history she has only a confused idea"; he speculated that she was "of a good family" because she had been kept alive at court and not sold. With Forbes's arrival in the court of King Ghezo, her fortunes—as dramatized in the PBS series Victoria—unexpectedly changed.

Forbes was part of the Royal Navy's antislavery squadron that patrolled and captured slave ships off West Africa. Though Great Britain had been a prominent force in the transatlantic slave trade, by 1838, under Queen Victoria, parliament had abolished slavery throughout the empire.

It may seem ironic that a man opposed to slavery would accept a human as a gift, which Walter Dean Myers, in his young reader book At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England, calls “a present from the King of the blacks to the Queen of the whites.” But as Forbes wrote in his journals, to refuse her would be to sign "her death-warrant.” He believed that, "in consideration of the nature of the service I had performed, the government would consider her as the property of the Crown," so the government would take responsibility for her care. And, he was immediately impressed by her brightness and charm, calling her "a perfect genius.” He renamed and baptized the young girl after himself and his ship, the HMS Bonetta. From that moment forward, she was known as Sarah Forbes Bonetta.


Sarah Forbes Bonetta, at about age 7, in a color plate from Frederick E. Forbes's Dahomey and the Dahomans, 1851
Dahomey and the Dahomans // Public Domain

Queen Victoria got word of Sarah's rescue, and on November 9, 1850, Forbes presented Sarah to the Queen at Windsor Castle. Both Forbes and the Queen likely saw a purpose for her in England’s promotion of Christianity in Africa. "God grant she may be taught to consider that her duty leads her to rescue those who have not had the advantages of education from the mysterious ways of their ancestors,” Forbes wrote hopefully.

In her essay in Black Victorians/Black Victoriana, Joan Anim-Addo suggests that Queen Victoria’s decision to pay for Sarah's education and guide her upbringing "took into careful consideration Forbes's projection of a future for Sally in missionary circles, particularly in relation to Sierra Leone.” In the 1800s, the Sierra Leone Colony was part of the British Empire, and administered by Anglican missionaries with the purpose of creating a home for freed slaves.

Sarah stayed for a time with Forbes's family and visited the Queen regularly. In her diary, Queen Victoria wrote fondly of Sarah, who she sometimes called Sally. “After luncheon Sally Bonita, the little African girl came with Mrs Phipps, & showed me some of her work. This is the 4th time I have seen the poor child, who is really an intelligent little thing.”

The captain died in 1851, and Sarah, then about 8 years old, was sent to a missionary school in Freetown, Sierra Leone in May of that year. The school forbade students from wearing African dress and speaking their native languages, and promoted English culture as a path to civilization. Sarah was a model student, but in 1855, she returned to England. According to Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion, Sarah was unhappy at the school, and the Queen agreed to her departure.

Map of Africa in 1840
Africa circa 1840
Olney's School Geography, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Her royal sponsor placed her with a new family, the Schoens, longtime missionaries in Africa who now lived at Palm Cottage in Gillingham, Kent, about 35 miles east of London. Sarah seemed to get along well with her new guardians—in her letters she addressed Mrs. Schoen as “Mama.” One of her letters, reprinted in Myers’s At Her Majesty’s Request, was sent from Windsor Castle and hints at the Queen’s care for her well-being: "Was it not kind of the Queen—she sent to know if I had arrived last night as she wishes to see me in the morning.”

The Schoens’ daughter Annie later remembered how Sarah "was very bright and clever, fond of study, and had a great talent for music, and soon became as accomplished as any English girl of her age.” Furthermore, Queen Victoria "gave constant proofs of her kindly interest in her," including invitations to Windsor at holidays, and gifts like an engraved gold bracelet. In an 1856 photograph, taken when she was around 13, Sarah is posed like an English lady, a sewing basket at her elbow, and a bracelet, perhaps the one from the Queen, on her wrist.

Despite living with the English elite, and receiving a lady’s education, Sarah had little control over her destiny. And like most women of the 19th century, she was expected to marry when she reached the proper age. For Sarah, that age was 19. A suitor was found: Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies, a Sierra Leone-born British naval officer. His own parents, of Yoruba descent, had been freed from slave ships by the Royal Navy, and Davies had attended the same missionary school as Sarah. After retiring from the navy, he became a successful merchant vessel captain and businessman. They seemed to have a lot in common, but Sarah did not love him. "I know that the generality of people would say he is rich & your marrying him would at once make you independent," Sarah wrote to Mrs. Schoen, "and I say, 'Am I to barter my peace of mind for money?' No—never!”

Yet she could not disobey the Queen, and in August 1862, in St. Nicolas Church in Brighton, she married Davies. In a series of 1862 carte de visite photographs now at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Sarah poses in her voluminous white wedding dress with her new husband. Her lively eyes stare directly at the viewer in one shot, with a gaze that seems almost defiant.

The couple moved to Sierra Leone, and then to Lagos. With royal permission, they named their daughter, born in 1863, after Queen Victoria, who became her godmother. The Queen presented baby Victoria with a gold cup, salver, knife, fork, and spoon engraved with an affectionate message: "To Victoria Davies, from her godmother, Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, 1863.”

Sarah and James had two more children, but Sarah’s health began to wane. She went to Madeira, a Portuguese island, to seek a cure for tuberculosis. Sadly, she died in 1880 at just 37 years old.

Upon hearing that news, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that she would give her goddaughter Victoria Matilda Davies an annuity of £40 (which has the economic power of £63,000 today).

Many mysteries remain about Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s life. In her letters, she wrote only of current events. She never reflected on her childhood, the loss of her family, or her dramatic rescue. She also never mentioned royal blood, though the popular notion of Sarah as an “African princess” endures.

Queen Victoria’s care for Sarah may have been partly a moral mission, fueled by the desire to spread Christian righteousness in the British colonies. Yet in an era when slavery was still practiced in the United States, her support and care for Sarah and her family was a powerful statement of tolerance.

Marshall McLuhan, the Man Who Predicted the Internet in 1962

Futurists of the 20th century were prone to some highly optimistic predictions. Theorists thought we might be extending our life spans to 150, working fewer hours, and operating private aircrafts from our homes. No one seemed to imagine we’d be communicating with smiley faces and poop emojis in place of words.

Marshall McLuhan didn’t call that either, but he did come closer than most to imagining our current technology-led environment. In 1962, the author and media theorist, predicted we’d have an internet.

That was the year McLuhan, a professor of English born in Edmonton, Canada on this day in 1911, wrote a book called The Gutenberg Galaxy. In it, he observed that human history could be partitioned into four distinct chapters: The acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the then-emerging electronic age. McLuhan believed this new frontier would be home to what he dubbed a “global village”—a space where technology spread information to anyone and everyone.

Computers, McLuhan said, “could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization,” and offer “speedily tailored data.”

McLuhan elaborated on the idea in his 1962 book, Understanding Media, writing:

"Since the inception of the telegraph and radio, the globe has contracted, spatially, into a single large village. Tribalism is our only resource since the electro-magnetic discovery. Moving from print to electronic media we have given up an eye for an ear."

But McLuhan didn’t concern himself solely with the advantages of a network. He cautioned that a surrender to “private manipulation” would limit the scope of our information based on what advertisers and others choose for users to see.

Marshall McLuhan died on December 31, 1980, several years before he was able to witness first-hand how his predictions were coming to fruition.

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Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress
14 Facts About Margaret Sanger
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress

Born in 1879, activist Margaret Sanger sparked both revolution and controversy when she began pushing for legalized access to birth control and founded the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Sanger remains a controversial figure even today, more than 50 years after her death.

1. SHE BLAMED HER FATHER FOR HER MOTHER'S DEATH.

Sanger was born Margaret Louise Higgins, the sixth of 11 children. Her mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, also had seven miscarriages, for a grand total of 18 pregnancies within 22 years. She suffered from poor health for much of that time, and when Anne died of tuberculosis at age 50, Margaret was just 19 years old. According to TIME Magazine, Margaret confronted her father at her mother's coffin and said, "You caused this. Mother is dead from having too many children."

2. SHE WANTED TO BE A DOCTOR.

Margaret Sanger sitting at a table.
Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress

Sadly, medical school was too expensive, so instead she entered a probationary nursing program in 1900. In early 1902, she met architect William Sanger. The two got married later that year and moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, a suburb about 20 miles away from New York City. They had three children.

3. HER HOUSE CAUGHT FIRE, LEADING HER TO MOVE TO THE CITY.

After the Sangers' house in Hastings-on-Hudson caught fire, Sanger stopped enjoying life in the suburbs. By 1911 the couple had decided to start a new life in Greenwich Village, where Sanger joined the Women's Committee of the New York Socialist Party. There, she met fellow radicals and reformers—like novelist Upton Sinclair, anarchist Emma Goldman, art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, and intellectual Max Eastman—who supported her ambitions to help working women.

In New York City, Sanger decided to jump back into her career by working as a visiting nurse in the Lower East Side tenements. She often treated women who attempted to give themselves abortions because they didn't have the money to care for another child. Dismayed by the poor health and poverty she saw among immigrants there, she developed opinions that would later lead to her advocacy for birth control.

4. SHE BELIEVED BIRTH CONTROL WAS A FREE SPEECH ISSUE.

Soon after arriving in Greenwich Village, Sanger began writing sex education columns for the New York Call, a socialist newspaper. Her frank discussion of women's sexuality and reproduction offended some readers. In 1913, politician and post office official Anthony Comstock censored her column because he considered her usage of words like syphilis and gonorrhea too vulgar.

A year after her column in the New York Call was banned, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, an eight-page monthly newsletter advocating contraceptive use. Operating under the slogan "No gods, no masters," Sanger used the newsletter to openly defy Comstock's eponymous 1873 laws. (The Comstock laws made it illegal to use the United States Postal Service to send anything containing information about contraceptives or anything else deemed obscene.) She was indicted in August 1914, but she fled to Europe to avoid arrest. She would eventually return to the United States to face trial, but in February 1916 the prosecution dropped the charges.

5. SHE WAS AGAINST ABORTION.

Despite her advocacy for family limitation, Sanger disliked the idea of abortion. She believed proper education and legalized contraceptives would reduce the need for the procedure. In her 1938 autobiography, Sanger described her experience treating Sadie Sachs, one of the women in the East Side tenements. In 1912, Sachs's husband called for Sanger's help after he found Sachs unconscious from a self-induced abortion. After three weeks of treatment from both Sanger and a local doctor, the only advice the doctor could offer Sachs was to avoid "any more such capers" and have her husband sleep on the roof.

Three months later, Sachs became comatose from another self-induced abortion, and Sachs's husband again reached out to Sanger for help. The woman died within 10 minutes of Sanger's arrival. Frustrated by the lack of resources and information available to lower-class women, Sanger resolved to make changes. From that time forward, she wrote, she wanted to "do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were as vast as the skies."

6. SHE POPULARIZED THE TERM BIRTH CONTROL.

Sanger is often credited for coining the term, but that honor actually goes to Robert Parker, a friend of hers who helped create The Woman Rebel. In her 1979 biography on Sanger, author Madeline Gray described Parker as a polio victim who studied yoga with the hopes of gaining more control over his partly paralyzed hand. Gray wrote:

"It occurred to him that control might apply to birth as well. 'Birth control,' he mused. 'Birth control … I think I like it.' They all liked it. As they put on their hats and left, they agreed that birth control was the best name for the movement."

Otto Bobsien, another of Sanger's colleagues, was the first to use the term to proclaim the start of the Birth Control League of America, a new organization he later said "never had more than a nominal existence." In 1915, when Sanger was away in Europe, Bobsien joined the National Birth Control League and offered the fledgling organization use of the movement's new name. When Sanger returned from Europe later that year, she helped popularize the term, considering it more straightforward than phrases like "family limitation."

7. SHE OPENED THE FIRST BIRTH CONTROL CLINIC IN THE U.S.

Historical image of Margaret Sanger standing on a street in New York City
Sanger outside of her trial on January 30, 1917.
Bain News Service, Library of Congress

In October 1916, Margaret Sanger opened a birth control clinic in Brooklyn with the help of her sister, Ethel Byrne, and interpreter Fania Mindell. It was the first of its kind in the U.S., and she modeled it after a Dutch clinic she had visited while evading American police. In the Netherlands, Sanger had learned about pessaries and diaphragms and became convinced they were more effective than the suppositories and douches she promoted in the United States. Sanger brought that new knowledge to her Brooklyn clinic, which served more than 100 women on its first day. For a cover charge of 10 cents, Sanger gave every woman a pamphlet of her New York Call column on "What Every Girl Should Know," a lecture on the female reproductive system, and instructions on several types of contraceptive use. The clinic closed just nine days later when Sanger was once again arrested for violating the Comstock laws. Sanger immediately attempted to reopen the clinic after being released on bail, but, as she wrote, she was promptly re-arrested and charged as a public nuisance.

8. SHE ONCE TOLD A JUDGE SHE COULDN'T RESPECT EXISTING LAWS.

Sanger and Byrne's court trials began in January 1917. Sanger's sister was tried first and sentenced to 30 days in a workhouse, but she immediately went on a hunger strike; Byrne fasted for a week before being force-fed by prison staff. When Sanger went to trial on January 29, she was supported in court by several Greenwich Village socialites and about 50 of the women she'd treated in the Brooklyn clinic. Presiding Justice John J. Freschi offered her a lenient sentence if she promised to obey the law, but Sanger responded by saying, "I cannot respect the law as it exists today." Sanger was found guilty and Freschi also sentenced her to 30 days in a prison workhouse.

In 1918, Sanger appealed the court decision and won a victory for the birth control movement. Although the court upheld Sanger's conviction and she still had to serve her 30 day sentence, Judge Frederick E. Crane of the New York Court of Appeals also ruled that doctors could prescribe contraceptives and disseminate information about birth control under certain conditions. Sanger ran with the new loophole in 1923, when she established a new clinic staffed largely by female doctors. The new clinic operated alongside the American Birth Control League. Almost two decades later, in 1939, the league and the clinic merged, forming the Birth Control Federation of America, and in 1942 this new organization officially became known as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

9. THE ROCKEFELLERS ANONYMOUSLY SUPPORTED HER CAUSE.

In the mid-1920s, John D. Rockefeller Jr. anonymously donated $10,000 to the American Birth Control League to fund research into contraceptives. Rockefeller's son, John D. Rockefeller III, continued his father's early support of Sanger's work, albeit more publicly. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund donated money to Planned Parenthood until 1981, when it decided to start funding agricultural research—which was decidedly less controversial—instead.

10. LIKE MANY WELL-KNOWN INTELLECTUALS OF HER DAY, SANGER SUPPORTED EUGENICS.

Many historians believe Sanger's support of eugenics was part strategic and part ideological. Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin's, initiated the Western eugenics movement by suggesting that traits like "talent and character" could be passed down to children through intentional breeding. Several British and American academics latched onto the idea, including figures like Theodore Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and Alexander Graham Bell. Sanger's support for sterilizing the diseased and "feebleminded" legitimized the birth control movement by aligning her ideas with those of contemporary intellectuals.

Sanger's belief in eugenics was a little different from other intellectuals', though. Eugenicists, she said, believed a woman's first duty should be to the state, and that all "fit" women should bear children. Sanger, on the other hand, thought a woman's first duty should be to herself. She contended the primary reason for birth control was to prevent pregnancies among women who couldn't support a child financially. Sanger believed her ideal of economic eugenics was morally superior to the views posed by traditional eugenicists.

The modern-day Planned Parenthood doesn’t hide Sanger's controversial support of the eugenics movement, but it doesn't endorse it, either. In a document published in 2016 [PDF], the organization said, "We believe that [those ideas] are wrong. Furthermore, we hope that this acknowledgement fosters an open conversation on racism and ableism—both inside and out of our organization."

11. HER BOOKS WERE AMONG THE FIRST BURNED BY NAZIS.

In May 1933, Nazis sanctioned the burning of more than 25,000 books deemed "un-German." Sanger had published at least nine books by that point, and they were all among that number, as were titles by Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and dozens of others. Sanger's books, which advocated for women's choice in everything from childbirth to politics, directly contradicted everything the Third Reich believed. Adolf Hitler supported traditional gender roles and wanted to maintain high birth rates, ideas Sanger decried in her books.

12. HER NIECE WAS PART OF THE INSPIRATION FOR WONDER WOMAN.

A panel of a Wonder Woman comic from 1978.
Tom Simpson, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Olive Byrne, Sanger's niece, was involved in a polyamorous relationship with Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston and his wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston. Marston credited both Olive and Elizabeth as his muses, according to historian Jill Lepore. In her 2014 book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Lepore wrote that Marston based part of Wonder Woman's costume on the silver bracelets Olive often wore. Lepore also suggested Sanger herself may have been an influence on the popular comic book character. Feminist movements in the early 1900s often symbolized female oppression with chains, and Sanger was quick to adopt such symbolism with books like Motherhood in Bondage. Wonder Woman's use of chains and ropes as weapons echoed Sanger's vision for female liberation.

13. SHE WAS NOMINATED FOR THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE 31 TIMES.

Margaret Sanger received 31 nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize between 1953 and 1963. In 1960 alone, she received 20 nominations from 16 university professors and four members of India's parliament (Sanger took several trips to India, where she worked with people like Gandhi to discuss birth control).

14. SHE LIVED JUST LONG ENOUGH TO SEE HER LIFE'S WORK COME TO FRUITION.

Planned Parenthood's publicity director looks over a poster in 1967.
H. William Tetlow, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Two important legal milestones happened after Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921. In December 1936, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals effectively overturned all federal restrictions on birth control, making it legal for doctors throughout the United States to provide access to contraception. On the state level, contraception was legal in some form or another everywhere except Connecticut, Mississippi, and Massachusetts. In 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut overturned the state laws preventing married women from accessing birth control. Griswold v. Connecticut later served as precedent for cases like Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), which gave unmarried couples unrestricted access to contraception; Roe v. Wade (1973), which legalized abortion; and Carey v. Population Services International (1977), which made it legal for doctors and pharmacists to distribute contraceptives to minors.

Sanger died on September 6, 1966, about a year after the Supreme Court decided on Griswold v. Connecticut. The next day, Alaska Senator Ernest Gruening spoke about Sanger in Congress. In an address to the president, Gruening said Sanger was "a great woman, a courageous and indomitable person who lived to see one of the most remarkable revolutions of modern times—a revolution which her torch kindled."

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