Sailing On A Name: Phillis Wheatley and Sarah Bonetta

Born almost a hundred years apart, two little captive African girls had some extraordinary similarities in their lives.  Each was named for the ship that was to carry her away from her West African home across the Atlantic.  Each proved to be extremely intelligent and accomplished, and was to become famous in her day.

Phillis Wheatley, 18th century African-American poet

Phillis Wheatley

  Sailing On A Name

The slave ship Phillis came into Boston harbor in 1761 with a cargo of captured West Africans to sell.  The ship’s owner, Mr. Timothy Fitchof  Massachussetts, was an astute man of business who knew the sale value of young men aged between 14 and 20.  He was particular in his instructions to the captains of his ships:

“You are not to take any Children, and Especially Girls, if you Can Avoid it by any means”.

Portrait of Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Nevertheless, on board the Phillis was a sickly little girl of about seven or eight, quite likely from the region we know today as Senegal and Gambia, and possibly from the Wolof people.

Nearly a hundred years later, in 1850, the HMS Bonetta, under the command of Captain Frederick Forbes, lay at anchor off the coast of Dahomey, on the lookout for now illegal slave trading in the Gulf of Guinea.

Gezo, the powerful Dahomean king, with whom Forbes was negotiating the suppression of the slave trade, paraded his captives from wars and raids in a show of strength.  Amongst them was an orphaned girl, also about seven years of age. Gezo allowed Commander Forbes to take her on his ship as a “present” for Queen Victoria.

Phillis Wheatley, the “African Genius”

The little child on the auction block in Boston was purchased as a servant by John and Susanna Wheatley of Boston.  They called her Phillis after the name of the ship she had arrived on, treated her kindly and allowed her to learn how to read and write.

Very quickly and to everyone’s astonishment, Phillis began to speak, read and write in English and mastered classical Greek and Latin.

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley via Blackpast.org

Did Phillis have an ear for language, and a distant memory of stories and praise songs from her homeland?  Certainly she had a gift for writing poetry.  The Wheatleys showed her off  in the highest circles of colonial America, though many found it difficult to credit her with the poems she wrote, even after she had been subjected to an examination by learned men!

Phillis lived in Boston in a historic moment. The American colonies were breaking free from Britain, and she must have been a witness to the intrigue, excitement and action in the city.  Later, she counted amongst her supporters great men of the time who were prepared to vouch for her writings.  She even corresponded with General George Washington.

Phillis Wheatley was the first African American writer to publish a book of poetry, called Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Ironically, she could find no publisher for an African-authored work, but her reputation had preceded her in England.  She was able to travel there and publish her Poems with the help of English patrons of the arts.

Many decades later when the Bonetta completed its tour of the West Coast, she set sail for England. Forbes, who took a liking to the girl in his charge, had named her Sarah, and given her both his own last name, Forbes, as well as the name of his ship, Bonetta.  Sarah’s mother tongue was Yoruba, and she quickly began to learn to speak English on board the Bonetta.

“Sally” was presented to Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle.  Finding the child “sharp and intelligent”, the Queen invited Sarah to visit the royal family often.  As a ward of the Queen, the African child enjoyed a status that was very rare amongst black people in London at the time.

Painting of Sarah Forbes Bonetta

Painting of Sarah Bonetta, ca. 1851

Sarah was sent to the Female Institution in Sierra Leone to be educated, and returned to England to live with a scholarly family called the Schoens, under Queen Victoria’s watchful eye. Though she was aware of the plight of London’s poor, Sarah understood that she was very special indeed to be exchanging correspondence, confidences and gifts with the royal family.  She was often mentioned in the society pages of the day!

In Victorian England, names like Charles Dickens,  the Americans Frederick Douglass and  Harriet Beecher Stowe as well as many society reformers, were becoming well-known. Sarah doesn’t seem to have campaigned actively against slavery, but she did return to work in West Africa as an educator.

Their Later Years

In spite of their astonishing privileges for the times in which they lived, and their personal accomplishments, neither Phillis nor Sarah could hope to continue to thrive without the direct support of their patrons.

It must have been difficult for both these remarkable women to learn to live in reduced circumstances as married women, after each had been received in the highest circles of society in their earlier lives.  Both had married educated men who aspired to succeed in life, but who also suffered the limitations of living in an age which did not favor their advancement as black men.

Is it possible that the traumas suffered in captivity affected the health of both women later in their lives, leading to their early deaths?  They had been separated from their families, and had probably witnessed great brutality in the process.  Phillis endured the horrors of the middle passage, arriving in the New World as a “poor naked child” shivering on a Boston dock.  Sarah was more lucky in the benefactors who took her to the “Old World”, but she had very likely faced a horrible fate, and her future amongst strangers must have seemed very uncertain.

Phillis Wheatley statue, Boston

Phillis Wheatley, via Ladybug's Leaf

Phillis struggled to keep up her art and was for a while able to live off her writing, but she died poor at just 31 years of age or so, and her grave has not been identified.

Sarah too, died young in her late 30’s on the island of Madeira where she lived with her family.  Sarah’s daughter Victoria Davies became Queen Victoria’s god-daughter and, like her mother, kept up a close friendship with British royalty.

In this video, a guide at the National Portrait Gallery in London tells Sarah’s story.

Books about Phillis and Sarah

The beloved children’s book author Walter Dean Myers came across some letters written by Sarah in a shop in London, and was so intrigued by them that he set out to discover exactly who she was. The result was a marvelous account of Sarah Forbes Bonetta’s life titled At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England. The book includes historic pictures as well as actual letters, notes and diary extracts which bring Sarah’s mid-19th century world alive.

At Her Majesty's Request, by Walter Dean Myers

There are many more books about Phillis Wheatley.  This one is by Canadian-Ghanaian writer Afua Cooper.

The Life of Phillis Wheatley by Afua Cooper

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