Sayyida Salme: The tragic life of Zanzibar's rebel princess

By Naima Mohamud
BBC News

Image source, Courtesy of Michael Bauer Ruete

Growing up in Zanzibar, as one of the sultan's 36 children, Sayyida Salme had everything except her freedom.

But at the age of 22, the princess fell pregnant by a German merchant out of wedlock. It caused a scandal and - fearing for her life - she fled Zanzibar for a foreign land.

Her tragic, colourful, story inspired her to write a book - but the tale has remained largely unknown.

"Salme broke the tradition of female education by teaching herself to write," Said el-Gheithy, founder and manager of the Princess Salme Museum in Zanzibar, tells the BBC.

She is often credited as being the first East African woman to write an autobiographical book.

Multilingual, she spoke Swahili, Arabic, Turkish and German.

"Even in Germany [where she eventually fled] she challenged the popular perception of East Africa and the Orient," Mr El-Gheithy adds. "She was a pioneer in terms of cross-cultural commentary and was the first woman to record her observations about the way of life in Germany and Zanzibar."

"She was particularly concerned about young children suffering from cold and hunger in Europe, which at the time she had tried to alleviate."

Early life in Zanzibar

Born in 1844 in Zanzibar, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean now part of Tanzania, to Sultan Said Ibn Sultan Al Bu-Said and a Circassian [part of present-day Russia] courtesan, Salme was a rebel from the start.

As a child she would copy the Arabic alphabet onto the bleached shoulder blade of a camel for the purpose of teaching herself to write.

Her older brother - Majid - inherited the throne after their father died in 1856. But a palace revolution broke out between Majid and her other brother, Barghash.

Like most of her siblings, Salme sided with Barghash and became his general secretary. At the age of 15, she was writing letters to chiefs who had decided to follow her rebel brother.

But Barghash's insurrection was crushed sooner than anyone had expected.

Salme surrendered to sultan Majid and lost the support of the majority of her 36 siblings.

Hanging out with the Europeans

Abandoned by her siblings and feeling increasingly alone, she began to feel drawn to other outsiders. Specifically, the Europeans in Zanzibar.

Salme's new house in Stone Town was situated next to that of a young German merchant by the name of Rudolph Heinrich Ruete.

Before long, the pair fell in love.

Image source, Michael Bauer Ruete
Image caption,
Sayyida Salme, her husband Rudolph Ruete and their two children

"Their affair sent shockwaves both to the royal family and the foreign trading company in Zanzibar," Mr El-Gheithy says.

"Foreign traders thought he was risking the lives of Europeans who were reliant on the goodwill of the sultan."

The couple would occasionally leave Stone Town but were still visible enough to be seen. Several sightings of them were reported to the sultan by German companies.

"The Germans perceived Rudolph as irresponsible and the locals saw him as a corrupting influence on the princess," Mr El-Gheithy explains.

Fleeing Zanzibar

When Sultan Majid heard about the rumours surrounding his sister and the German, he sent for Salme and had his executioner at the ready. The sultan was reportedly only calmed down by his stepmother who insisted that they wait and see if the rumours were true.

But - when Salme's pregnancy began to show - the sultan ordered her to travel to Saudi Arabia.

"Sayyida was a smart girl, she had heard of stories of girls in similar conditions who were sent on voyages but who only reached the bottom of the ocean," Mr El-Gheity says.

So she fled to Aden, a port city in Yemen, where she gave birth to, and tragically lost, a child.

When her German lover joined her several month later, they married, moved to Germany and had three other children.

Salme changed her name to Emily Ruete once she arrived in the country.

But tragedy struck once more when, shortly after the birth of their youngest child, Rudolph was killed in a tram accident. "She was inconsolable," Mr El-Gheity says.

Salme found herself in a strange land, penniless and alone with three small children.

She soon felt compelled to write a book about her tragic and colourful life.

Salme died in 1924 and was buried with a small bag of sand from a beach in Zanzibar, which she reportedly always carried with her.

American descendants

"I went down to the beach where Princess Salme was last seen when she left Zanzibar," Michael Bauer Ruete, the great-great grandson of Salme, tells the BBC. "I took a bottle and filled it up with sand from the beach."

A retired deputy sheriff, he lives in Florida with his wife and children.

Image source, Michael Bauer Ruete
Image caption,
Michael Bauer Ruete holding a sword that belonged to his great great grandmother

Mr Bauer Ruete's grandmother, Olga Ruete, was the granddaughter of Salme.

"Growing up, I didn't know much about our family history," he says.

"My grandmother always kept it a secret but after she died, I found all kinds of items from Zanzibar; documents from the Zanzibar royal family, old photos, chests full of items I had never seen before."

Image source, Michael Bauer Ruete
Image caption,
Salme's granddaughter Olga

Olga, who grew up in England, fell in love with an American diplomat and moved to the US and had Anne - Michael's mother.

"A few years ago I learnt of our Zanzibar... relatives. We flew to England to meet [them] including the last sultan of Zanzibar, His Majesty Jamshid Khalifa," Mr Bauer Ruete says. "A whole new life opened up for us."

Despite the tragedy, Mr Bauer Ruete sees a positive side to Salme's life.

He says: "Although her life was not easy, [she] is still remembered and celebrated because of her strong character [and] the difficult decisions and sacrifices she had to make."

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