cover image At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England

At Her Majesty's Request: An African Princess in Victorian England

Walter Dean Myers. Scholastic Press, $17.95 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-590-48669-9

Myers's (Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary) discovery of a packet of letters in a rare books shop in London planted the seeds for this fascinating biography, which reconstructs the remarkable life of Sarah Forbes Bonetta. In 1850, orphaned and held as a captive by the Dahomans in West Africa, an Egbado princess faces imminent death as part of a Dahomian sacrificial rite. When Frederick E. Forbes, captain of the British ship Bonetta and a strong opponent to the slave trade, begs that she be spared, Dahomian King Gezo offers her as a gift to Queen Victoria. Under Forbes's protection, the princess is baptized Sarah Forbes Bonetta and escorted to England; Forbes presents her to the queen, who takes an avid interest in her and provides for her education and upbringing. From the princess's life in an England far from her native shores, filled with frequent visits to the queen and royal family, to her education as a young woman of privilege at a missionary school in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to her eventual arranged marriage and early death from consumption, Myers portrays a young woman who never truly belongs. Despite her celebrity, education and proximity to royalty, Sarah remains subject to the prescribed roles for women in her day and to the queen's will--even concerning her marriage--because she possesses no independent financial means; thus the title takes on a somber double entendre. Myers sets Sarah's story within the context of daily life and culture in England, Britain's attitudes toward Africa and slavery and the growing unrest across the Atlantic that would result in the Civil War. Period etchings and photographs, many from the author's own collection, contribute to this moving and very human portrait of a princess. Ages 9-12. (Feb.)