Aina (Sarah Forbes Bonetta) by Camille Silvy

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[IMAGE] A Black woman standing in profile, wearing an elaborate, Victorian-style dress with a high neck, pinched waist and long, full skirt.
Aina (Sarah Forbes Bonetta), a Yoruba woman from West Africa who was a favourite of Queen Victoria.
Aina (Sarah Forbes Bonetta (later Davies))
by Camille Silvy
albumen print, 15 September 1862
3 1/4 in. x 2 1/4 in. (83 mm x 56 mm) image size
NPG Ax61380
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 23 on Floor 2 at the National Portrait Gallery

Aina (Sarah Forbes Bonetta) (1843–80) was a Yoruba A West African ethnic group based mainly in parts of Nigeria, Benin and Togo. woman, born in what is now Nigeria in West Africa. As a child, she was captured and brought to England as a ‘gift’ for Queen Victoria. Her name was changed from Aina to Sarah Forbes Bonetta. 

Aina experienced a privileged British upbringing and became a celebrity in British high society. But she had been Displaced To be forced to move away from your home to another place. from her homeland, and her Yoruba identity was almost completely erased. 

After her death, her extraordinary story was effectively removed from history until it was recently rediscovered.

Analysing the portrait

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[IMAGE] A Black woman standing in profile, wearing an elaborate, Victorian-style dress with a high neck, pinched waist and long, full skirt.
Aina (Sarah Forbes Bonetta (later Davies)), by Camille Silvy, 15 September 1862

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • Aina is wearing a long, decorated dress with a high neck. It is pinched in at the waist and has a long, full skirt. This is typical of the Victorian style of the period and would have been very fashionable and expensive. 
    • She is wearing a necklace, bracelets and earrings. We can see rings on the ‘ring finger’ of her left hand. 
    • Her hair is covered with a headdress. 
    • The photograph was taken to mark Aina’s marriage to James Davies. She is thought to be wearing her wedding dress and wedding rings.
    • Aina is standing tall in a formal Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made.
    • She looks directly at the photographer (and us, the viewer) with a dignified expression. 
    • She appears poised, elegant and Stately Impressive in size, appearance or manner. .
    • Aina is holding the back of an elegant metal chair. 
    • She is surrounded by potted plants and there are leaves scattered on the floor. A large column and a tree can be seen in the background. 
    • Camille Silvy took this photograph in his studio. At the time, it was common to stage portrait photographs with props and a Backdrop A large piece of material, usually cloth or paper, that is hung behind a person to create the background of their portrait. . Silvy appears to have staged a grand garden scene.
    • We can see the end of a date ‘-mber 15th’, the number ‘11697’ and ‘Mrs GPL Davies’ written above the image. 
    • The date is September 15th, one month after Aina and James’s wedding on 14 August 1862. 
    • The number is a catalogue or reference number from Silvy’s records. It shows this was the 11,697th photograph taken in his London studio. Catalogue numbers made it easy for people to order new prints of their portraits.
    • The name ‘GPL Davies’ refers to Aina’s new status as the wife of James Pinson Labulo Davies. It was common in the Victorian period (and later) for women to be known by their husband’s name. 
    • It is not known why a ‘G’ rather than a ‘J’ was written as Davies’s first initial.
Others would say ‘He is a good man and though you don’t care about him now, will soon learn to love him.’ That, I believe, I never could do.
Aina, about 1862, describing her reluctance to marry James Davies, whom she barely knew.

Who was Aina (Sarah Forbes Bonetta)?

  • Aina was a Yoruba A West African ethnic group based mainly in parts of Nigeria, Benin and Togo. woman, born in West Africa, in what is now Nigeria. 
  • Aged about five, her parents were murdered by King Ghezo of Dahomey (now Benin) and Aina was captured.
  • She was given to a British naval captain called Frederick Forbes, as a gift for Queen Victoria. Victoria was the most powerful ruler in the world at the time.
  • Before leaving for England on HMS Bonetta, Forbes gave Aina a new name – Sarah Forbes Bonetta.
  • Queen Victoria was very impressed by Aina’s intelligence and dignified manner.
  • She paid for Aina to study at a British Church School in Sierra Leone in West Africa. Aina was known to be unhappy there. 
  • She returned to England and eventually became a celebrity in British high society.
  • In 1862, Queen Victoria arranged for Aina to be married to James Davies, a wealthy businessman from Sierra Leone. This was not Aina’s choice. She signed her birth name, Aina, in the marriage record, not Sarah.
  • The couple named their first child Victoria. Queen Victoria became the child’s godmother.    
  • During her lifetime, Aina’s childhood story, her life as the queen’s Protégé A young person who is helped in their development by a more experienced person. , and her intelligence and other qualities were widely publicised. Aina was presented as an example of how a British education could ‘civilise’ people from other countries – a view deeply rooted in racism, as it denied the existence of African civilisation.
  • Her story acted as Propaganda Ideas or statements used to gain support for an idea or a political party. They may be false or present only one side of an argument. , helping to present the British Empire as a force for good in the world and justify the violence involved in Colonise To take control of an area or a country that is not your own, especially using force, and to send people from your own country to live there. other countries.
  • Aina died from Tuberculosis A serious disease that usually affects the lungs. when she was 37 and her story was almost completely erased from history.
  • More recently, Aina’s story has re-emerged as historians and artists have begun to research and discover more about people of colour in British history.

Who was Camille Silvy?

  • At the time this photograph was taken in 1862, Camille Silvy was one of the most successful portrait photographers in London.
  • He photographed the royal family and other people in Victorian high society.
  • He also photographed London’s thriving business community, including people who had moved from countries connected to the British empire, like Aina’s husband James Davies, who came from Sierra Leone.
  • He kept copies of photographs of all his sitters in a series of albums, along with their name and the date the image was taken, including this portrait of Aina. These albums give us a unique view of London high society during the 1860s. 

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This is the oldest portrait of a named Black woman in the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection. 
  • The photograph was taken to mark Aina’s marriage to James Davies. Their wedding was a grand event which took place in Brighton, attracting large crowds. The wedding party included guests with both European and African heritage.
  • It is one of four photographs, including two of the couple together.
  • They were taken by Camille Silvy, one of the most fashionable photographers of the time. The photographs were taken at Silvy’s studio while the couple were in London.
  • This particular print came from one of Silvy’s albums – he kept a record of every person he photographed. 
  • The couple would have received a properly finished and mounted print of their own. We do not know what Aina thought of her wedding photographs.
  • The photographs were taken at a time when photography was still a relatively new technology. Although a photographic portrait was much cheaper than a painted portrait, it was still only the wealthier members of society who could afford to have their portraits made.
  • Portraits of Aina are now some of the most searched-for images on the National Portrait Gallery’s website.


  1. What is your impression of Aina from this portrait?
  1. Why do you think the photographer chose a ‘grand garden’ theme as the staging and backdrop for this portrait?
  1. Why do you think stories of Black women like Aina were missing from history books for so long?
  1. Why do you think Aina’s portrait is one of the most searched-for portraits on the National Portrait Gallery’s website?
  1. Artists like Heather Agyepong and Hannah Uzor have created new art works based on photographs of Aina and her life story. How might you create a new portrait of Aina?