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The princess that got away
Forget that timeworn Hollywood plot – eastern potentate captures pouting western heroine and sweeps her off to a life of romance in his exotic palace. Princess Salme was a beautiful Arab Zanzibari princess who nearly 150 years ago made the reverse journey into the heart of Europe. Better still, she wrote her own scripts, with much to say about her life and times.
Born in 1844, Sayyida Salme was the daughter of the Omani sultan of Zanzibar, Sayyid Said bin Sultan Al-Busaid. Her mother was a Circassian concubine who died when she was 15. Raised at court, Salme led a privileged life, which she recalled with great affection.
She had daily riding lessons from a eunuch, and horse raced with her brothers. One of them taught her to fence with sword, dagger and lance, and to fire rifles and pistols.
The palace where she lived as a child is Beit il Mtoni (Mtoni Palace), just north of Stone Town. You can visit the ruins today. In its heyday she estimated that 1,000 people lived there. The sultan’s extended family alone took up a lot of space, and each family unit had a retinue of servants. Salme recalled “of my senior brothers and sisters, some were old enough to have been my grandparents, and one of my sisters had a son with a grey beard. In our home no preference was shown to the sons above the daughters”.
The palace courtyard was full of animals, including gazelles, peacocks and flamingos. It also housed very popular Turkish baths – most palace residents were in the habit of spending several hours a day there “saying their prayers, doing their work, reading, sleeping or even eating and drinking... from four o’clock in the morning until midnight there was constant movement: the stream of people coming and leaving never ceased”.
Education for the girls at court normally stopped once they could read and recite the Quran. But Salme secretly taught herself to write by copying calligraphy from the Quran onto a camel shoulder blade.
As she grew up she inherited plantations from both her parents. At 15, she also became involved in court intrigues, siding with her brother Bargash against her brother Majid in his bid for the sultanate. She used her writing skills as secretary to the pro-Bargash party – even ordering up guns and powder - and led a raid to rescue Bargash, dressed in women’s clothes, from captivity.
In 1866, Salme fell in love with Heinrich Ruete, a young German neighbour in Zanzibar Town, where he worked for a German commercial house. She left Zanzibar to be with him. In Aden she converted to Christianity and married him, taking the name Emily Ruete. They settled in his home town of Hamburg. She became fluent in German, as well as her existing Arabic and Swahili.
Tragedy struck after three years when Heinrich was killed in a tramcar accident. Left in a strange land with three young children, she made ends meet by writing. Much of it was based on her experiences in Zanzibar, which she often drew on to challenge assumptions about the superiority of European life and values. This was the time of colonial expansion in East Africa.
The German government tried to use her to influence Bargash, while the British government paid her to stay away from him. Twenty years after she left Zanzibar she was allowed to return for a visit, meeting many old friends and relatives but saddened by the conditions she found there.
In many ways Salme was a woman ahead of her time. Her non-European and female ethnographic commentary on life in nineteenth century Europe is regarded as unique. She championed health care, literacy and education for women. But she very much regarded herself as an Oriental or Arab woman, and though she spoke warmly of individual African Zanzibaris she was quite blind to their rights and needs. She admired the British people but attacked the British-led abolition of the Zanzibar-based slave trade.
It’s a curious, circular fact that at the same time Salme was confronting life in Germany through a Zanzibari lens, German Karl Marx was using his base in Britain to shake up its politics and economy, while British explorer David Livingstone was exposing the terrible effects of the slave trade in East Africa!
Salme died in Germany in 1924: her surviving relatives live in Germany, Holland Brazil and Zanzibar, and there is a Princess Salme Institute based in London.
You can read her fascinating Memoirs of an Arab Princess online
Zanzibar Different Tours offer a Princess Salme spice tour from $60 a head, including a dhow cruise, Mtoni Palace visit, Persian baths visit, coffee ceremony, donkey cart ride, local lunch and spice tour.