Sayyida Salme: the rebel princess who became a writer

By June 9, 2019Authors, News

Sayyida Salme was born the youngest of 36 children born to a Circassian concubine and the Sultan of Zanzibar and Oman. Growing up in a palace may seem like luxury but Salme’s childhood was far from peaceful. In a time when women were not permitted to read and write, a young Salme used a bleached camel shoulder blade bone to copy and secretly practice her letters and numbers. Her brothers taught her to ride and shoot, and soon she could compete with any of her siblings.

After her father’s death in 1856, Salme’s older brother, Majid, inherited the throne but after a revolution broke out between Majid and her other brother, Barghash, Salme had to make a choice.

Convinced by her favourite sister to help support their brother Barghash, Salme soon became his general secretary. It became clear that Barghash’s insurrection was fleeting and it ended sooner than expected, prompting Salme to surrender to the new sultan, her rebel brother, losing the support of the majority of her 36 siblings.

These complicated circumstances motivated Salme to move away from her family to a town where she eventually met her German lover, Rudolph Heinrich Ruete, a merchant.

The princess felt more comfortable among the outsiders of Stone Town, where she met her future husband, away from the drama surrounding the palace and her siblings. Salme soon became pregnant by Rudolph and the pair decided to flee before Salme was captured by her family and made to conveniently ‘disappear’.

Salme fled on the HMS Highflyer to the British colony of Yemen. There, Salme gave birth to her child at the port at Aden but the baby sadly died while they were travelling to Germany. When she arrived in her new country, Salme changed her name to Emily Ruete, the name used as author of her books.

Rudolph joined her in Germany where they had three children, and a peaceful life together until his tragic death by tram in 1870. Salme was utterly bereft and heartbroken, left with two children to raise on her own, and in dire straits as authorities denied her inheritance.

With money trouble now looming, Salme wrote Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, which was first published in the German Empire in 1886, and later published in the USA and the UK. The book is the first known autobiography of an Arab woman and offers the reader an intimate look at life in Zanzibar in the mid-1800s.

In 1992, a collection of Salme’s letters home and reflections on life in Europe were also published- making An Arabian Princess Between Two Worlds available to the public.

Sayyida Salme, AKA Emily Ruete, died in Jena, Germany, at the age of 79, from severe pneumonia.

A permanent exhibition about the rebel princess stands in the People’s Palace in Stonetown, as constructed by her brother, Sultan Barghash.

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