Queen Victoria’s Goddaughter

Sarah Forbes Bonetta was a girl from an Egbada Yoruba village in western Africa. she was captured during a raid by Dahomey slave traders in the middle decades of the nineteenth century.  Traded to a British naval captain, she ended up in the court of Queen Victoria as a ward and goddaughter of the Queen.  In this position, she was educated and received other benefits of the Court.  In addition to her place in the history of the Court, her story became part of the folklore of Sierra Leone.  It is now also the inspiration for an wonderfully told fiction by Anni Domingo, who was also born in Sierra Leone. The real Bonetta died at a young age.  Domingo’s character has a different fate.

Domingo’s novel, titled Breaking the Maafa Chain, is a speculative work which provides a tale that examines the transatlantic slave trade, the British class system and the relationships of children.  In the novel, Sarah is traded to a British naval captain whose ship’s mission is part of the British attempts to end the slave trade.  His crew’s assignment was to track and board ships off the coast of western Africa believed to be engaged in the slave trade, which had been declared illegal in Briatin.  It is during a venture into the encampment of a well-known African slave trader that he encoutners Sarah as she is being taken to be sacrificed.  The Captain intervenes and saves her life.  After a few more weeks of travel, the ship docks in Liverpool and the Captain takes Sarah into his home and family.  However, in truth she belongs to the Queen’s court.  The Queen is an abolitionist, as are the Captain and most of his family.

Domingo constructs her tale in part by imagining Sarah’s life in her village.  This imagining includes an older sister, with whom Sarah tells their tale.  Alternating their narratives, the reader is introduced to a variety of characters in the village.  It is a patriarchal culture, so in the girls’ world, it is the women with whom they interact the most.  Fatmata is the given name of Sarah’s older sister, just as Salimatu is Sarah’s given name.  Both will end up with their Christian names when they first interact with white people.  Sarah’s introduction has already been described.  Fatmata’s introduction was consderably less charmed.  She was kidnapped in a raid led by an African man whose hatred for the people of her village was instigated when the chief of the girls’ village (their father) was given the woman he loves as part of a peacemaking deal.  While Salimuta was sold to one trader, Fatmata was sold to another and ends up in the bowels of a slave ship on her way to the United States, where slavery is still legal in many of its states.  Fatmata will become Faith and her fate will be that of a slave in the Carolinas.  It is a chance meeting with a freed Black which will help her achieve her escape from slavery’s clutches.

This novel is simultaneously a tale of class and race.  Told through the eyes of two sisters ripped from their home by forces well outside the understanding of their people, the story that unfolds gives the reader a perspective of the rapaciousness of the slave trade.  It indicts the men and women who sold other men and women to the slave traders that sailed their ships of human cargo across the Atlantic.  Although it portrays the British crown under Victoria as a benevolent entity when it came to the slave trade, that is counterbalanced by the author’s observations regarding class and even British colonialism.  These observations are sometimes mouthed by the young characters in the novel; other times they manifest themselves via words of the adults or the scenarios Domingo narrates.

Breaking the Maafa Chain is a different take on the trade in human beings that so defined the Atlantic world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Occasionally unsparing in its descriptions of the violence and terror of the trade, the tale told here is also often compassionate and even tender.  The author’s decision to have young people tell the story creates a believable innocence to a tale born out of an endeavor so evil it is difficult to contemplate.  Despite its occasional almost fantastical situations, Domingo’s narrative is seamless and ultimately realistic.  There are no leaps into a world that a young African in the Britain or United States of the time could not exist in.  Likewise, the ultimate fate of the sisters is realistic in its acknowledgment of the limitations the politics of the period would have placed on the sisters’ lives.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com