Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Princess of Zanzibar

Every once in while my research uncovers a person that I wish I had room for in my story.   I can not find a role for Sayyida Salme, later known as Emily Ruete, so I am going to tell you about her here.  Her real life is far too filled with acts of rebellion to fit nicely into fiction.

Salme was the 36th and last child of Seyyid Said, the Sultan of Zanzibar.  Her mother was one of the sultan’s concubines.  Keep this in mind: Salme was born into a culture where upper class girls like her were kept under lock and key and guarded by eunuchs.

She grew up in Bet il Mtoni palace, overlooking the harbor of Zanzibar, which later became the site of the shortest war in history—more about which here:

Despite the circumstances of her birth, Salme got around.  Her brother taught her to ride and shoot, and she taught herself to read, something girls never learned in that time and place.  This was all before she turned twelve, when she was declared of age.  At that point her father died and left her with a house on her own plantation and 5429 British pounds.  Eventually, she would inherit three more plantations from her mother. 

Imagine the wealth of a father who could thus endow his 36th child and still leave the heir to his throne rich as Croesus.  Who exactly that heir turned out to be became the subject of the family dust up that led to the aforementioned war.  Salme’s brother Majid was on the throne.  But another brother, Khalid Barghash took over in a coup.  Salme, then fifteen, favored Majid, but since she could read and write and was just a girl, she was strong armed into acting as secretary for the usurper.    Majid was seriously displeased.  And he had the upper hand, since he was favored by the Brits.  His Majesty’s Royal Navy made short work of Khalid Barghash, as reported at the link above.  For two years, Salme retired to some of her nearby real estate.  But then Majid relented, and she was allowed to relocate back to town, fatefully moving in next door to a German Merchant—one Rudolf Heinrich Ruete.  Heinrich soon began really enjoying his Arabian nights.

As luck would have it, her liaison with her neighbor resulted in her becoming pregnant.   Majid was seriously displeased.  Salme absconded to Aden aboard a British frigate.  The upstanding Heinrich followed.  There she converted to Christianity, and they were married.  Their baby boy died on their way to Germany.  They settled in Hamburg and were blessed with two more sons and a daughter.

When Heinrich died in a tram accident, Salme was left to fend for herself.  One way she supported herself was with the publication of her Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, first in German and later translated into English.

Salme lived to be 79, dying in Germany of pneumonia.

After thoughts:

Reportedly, no less a personage than Otto Von Bismarck, during the scramble for Africa, offered to install one her sons as Sultan of Zanzibar.

In 1934, in the face of the rise of Nazism, Salme’s son Rudolph Said-Ruete, renounced his German citizenship, settled in London, and became a subject of the King.

Caveat:  My interest in this story is admittedly superficial, but there are some real conflicts in what I have learned—the most serious of which involve the dates of all these events.   Salme is reported as born in 1844.  She was married in 1867.  Her book was first published in 1886.  All of which makes perfect sense in terms of the sequence of her events.  But the conflict between Majid and Khalid Barghash took place in 1896, when Salme was 52 years old.   There is the possibility for a PhD dissertation in African studies for the scholar who wants to sort all this out.  Sadly, that scholar will not be...

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. All I can say is wow, oh wow oh wow..... how dull our lives are in comparison! tjs

  2. I, too, find characters popping up all over in my reading and I just do not have the capability of using all of them. What a great find. I love research because you never know where it will take you!!

  3. Her book can be read online (free) here: