The Other Princess

Written by Denny S. Bryce
Review by Edward James

One of the more curious byways of colonialism, common to all colonial powers, was the taking of selected individuals, often children, from the ‘native’ peoples and educating them in Europe, to be returned to their homelands to help ‘civilise’ their compatriots.  Sometimes they were taken by force, but more often it was by persuasion, deceit or purchase.

The Other Princess is the story of one such child, a slave girl gifted to Queen Victoria by the King of Dahomey in West Africa and brought up in the royal household with the expectation that she would return to Africa as a missionary. Aina was a princess of the Egbado people in present-day Nigeria and was taken in a slave raid by the Dahomeys.  But for the intervention of a British naval officer, she would have been sold-on or ritually sacrificed.  Instead, she was gifted to Victoria and brought up in Windsor under the name Sarah Forbes Bonetta.

The book is structured as a memoir written by Aina/Sarah towards the end of her short life (she died aged 37 in 1880).  She never wrote a memoir or kept a journal, but the success of the book is that it reads just as one might imagine she would have written it, provided she was as self-aware as she is presented.  She was certainly a prolific letter writer, a talented pianist, and a dedicated parent and teacher.

Hers was a privileged but not always happy life.  In many ways she remained a slave.  Everything that happened to her was at the Queen’s behest, sometimes despite Sarah’s fierce resistance.  Shuttled back and forth between England and Africa, she packed a great deal into her life, and it is a fascinating read.