At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England – Walter Dean Myers (1999)

Book413So, prowling my shelves and thinking of Black History Month as one does, my eye was caught by a thin title and pulled it off the shelf, curious to learn more. The book turned out to be about Queen Victoria (swoon) and how she semi-adopted a young African princess when the girl first arrived in London. It’s an interesting story, but I had not heard of it before, so I dug right in.

Based on a stash of original nineteenth century documents that the author unearthed in the National Archives one day, the book follows the life of young Sarah Forbes Bonetta when she is first “rescued” by a white military officer from an African nation full of warring tribal groups, and then introduced into royal circles in England. (It does have shades of the movie, Greystoke… Perhaps the author wasn’t the first person to find this info out.)

This was in the mid-nineteenth century and slavery was in full force in both England and the States, and, although there were people who were abolitionists, it hadn’t taken up full swing just yet. A Royal Navy officer happened to be at one of the ports where the slave ships would embark with kidnapped slaves-to-be, and after a skirmish of some kind, the girl’s parents were killed, and so she is alone. The military officer decides the best thing is to take the new orphan, and deliver her to England. (Cue: Greystoke here.)

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Upon arrival, the young African girl has no English language skills, and hardly any schooling. She was surrounded by people who looked nothing like her, and she was trapped in multiple layers of uncomfortable English clothes in a strange cold country. However, she made the news and that alerted the Queen of her presence.

Hearing talk of this arrival, Queen Victoria asked for a meeting, and that’s how the whole English part of the story began.

Queen Victoria enjoyed the young girl and gave her the best tutors and education that one can receive, and it all seemed to be working out well until the young girl started to get sick more and more often. The Victorians didn’t have a good grasp of medicine at this time, let alone tropical medicine, and after trying to treat her, the little girl ends up on a boat back to Africa where she attends missionary school, but unfortunately has a very hard time fitting in with her peers due to the recent English influence. This is overcome, and in the end, she grows up into adulthood, and no one seems to know of how her life went after this experience.

While I was reading this, I really enjoyed it, but as I started to think about it in a critical manner, it dawned on me that this was a tricky situation to look back on through twenty-first century eyes, especially with the knowledge of slavery for England and US. On the one hand, the little orphan was saved from a poverty-stricken life in an African country and given the royal treatment for a year. On the other hand, this is covered with the haze of white/ colonialism/power, so it’s not easy to parse.

Still, an interesting read. BTW, it’s classified as YA, so it’s a fast read, but it’s still informative.

Part of JOMP’s celebration of Black History Month.

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