Sayyida Salme / Emily Ruete: An Arabian Princess Between Two Worlds
Like many others who know of her story, I first learned about Sayyida Salme bint Said (later known as Emily Ruete, 1844–1924) through an exhibit at the now somewhat dilapidated Beit el Ajaib (House of Wonders) in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Astonished to discover that Salme is the first-known Arab woman to have published a memoir, I visited the exhibition’s gift shop and purchased a copy of her book — in the original German, natürlich — titled Memoiren einer Arabischen Prinzessin aus Sansibar. As it turned out, the German edition I bought was printed in the old Gothic script known as Blackletter, which I find terribly frustrating to decipher. So, years later, the volume still languishing unread on my shelf, I went down to my local used bookstore and picked up an English translation that was no doubt deposited there by another traveller returned from East Africa. At long last, I cracked the book open and settled in for Salme’s fascinating account of her Zanzibari upbringing.
As the blurb on the book cover warns, Salme’s memoir frustrates the Western reader’s desire for titillating glimpses into exotic harem life. Nor does the volume provide any salacious details about the author’s affair with the German Rudolph-Heinrich Ruete, an event that precipitated her departure from Zanzibar. (Outside sources indicate that, pregnant with his child, Salme fled the island for Europe, where she married Ruete, adopted his name and his faith, and bore him three children after the death of the first.) The lack of romance and scandal in the book is interesting, particularly because Salme wrote the memoir under difficult financial circumstances. Following her husband’s untimely death in a tram accident, Salme was left virtually friendless and penniless in a strange land. Though in the book itself she claims she composed her autobiography for the sake of her children, she also hoped the work would bring some financial remuneration. How better to sell a book in nineteenth-century Europe than to feed into contemporary readers’ Orientalist predilections?
And yet, Salme resists succumbing to this temptation. What she offers instead is part remembrance of her early life in the palaces of Zanzibar, and part ethnographic reflection on life in “the East,” touching on topics such as education, health care, slavery, and the place of women in a Muslim society. Instead of titillating her European readership, Salme bravely instructs them on their many misconceptions about the Arab world. And though the volume provides less wonder and romance than one might expect from a title like Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, the singular life it recounts provides plenty to fascinate.
Salme entered the world in 1844, the youngest of 36 children born to the first Omani sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyid Said bin Sultan al-Busaid, who moved his capital from Muscat (in Oman) to Stone Town (on Zanzibar) sometime between 1832 and 1840. Her mother was a concubine named Jilfidan, and she was Circassian by birth. Circassians, who enjoyed greater privilege in Zanzibar than their “Abyssinian” (i.e., Ethiopian) sistren, belonged to an ethnic group that was displaced in great numbers from their homes in the northwest Caucuses during the Russian conquest of the area in the first half of the nineteenth century. Salme spent her earliest years living with her mother in her father’s largest palace, Bet il Mtoni, located about five miles outside of Stone Town. A massive construction full of narrow corridors and steep stairways, Bet il Mtoni was home to a truly astonishing number of people; Salme estimates the number at one thousand.
At the age of seven, Salme and her mother left Bet il Mtoni for Bet il Watoro, her beloved brother Madjid’s palace. Bet il Watoro was located in the city, just a stone’s throw from yet another massive family palace, Bet il Sahel. Like Bet il Mtoni, Bet il Sahel sheltered nearly one thousand people, which Salme describes as an impressively diverse yet terribly noisy crew:
A painter would have found many models for a picture in our gallery, for a more variegated company could not easily be met with. The faces of the people showed eight to ten different shades of complexion at least; and it would, indeed, have puzzled even a clever artist to make out the many-tinted garments worn. The noise was truly appalling — quarrelling or romping children in every corner — loud voices and clapping hands summoning servants, the Eastern equivalent for ringing a bell — the rattle and clatter of the women’s wooden sandals (Kabakib) — all combined in producing the most distracting din.
Despite the noise, the diversity of cultures represented at Bet il Sahel — along with the veritable “babel of languages” that served as one of Salme’s “chief amusements” — made the palace a perhaps surprisingly cosmopolitan environment. It also constituted a wonderland for childhood shenanigans. At one point, Salme recounts terrorizing a particularly savage peacock: “We threw ourselves on the beast, and conquered it at last. Not feeling inclined, however, to set it free without punishment, we resolved upon a very cruel revenge, viz. depriving the animal of its magnificent plumage; and miserable enough the pugnacious bird looked after this.”
After describing yet another move, this time to Bet il Tani, which was connected to Bet il Sahel via a suspension bridge, Salme interrupts her narrative with a sizable digression of several chapters detailing daily life in the East, the culture of meal-taking, the early life of Arabian princes and princesses, education, and fashion. When she returns to her autobiography, she tells of her father’s death and her brother Madjid’s quick usurpation of the sultanate (the eldest son and heir-apparent was living in Oman and couldn’t reach Zanzibar in time to take power). This account is followed by another significant narrative digression, this time comprising a very long chapter with profiles of several of her brothers and sisters, a chapter on the position of women in the East, a chapter on Arab matchmaking, chapters on how Arab women and men entertain visitors, chapters on various Muslim holidays and festivals, a chapter on the status of medicine in the East, and, finally, a chapter on slavery.
It isn’t until after some seventy pages of fairly innocuous ethnography (the slavery chapter being an obvious exception, on which more later) that Salme returns to her life story. And when she does, the reader is in for a surprise. Three years after her father’s death, she lost her mother in a cholera epidemic. Then all hell broke loose. Following her mother’s death, Salme’s family split into two factions on account of increasing corruption in Madjid’s court. Those who did not voice their support for Madjid put their weight behind his brother, Bargasch, who “endeavoured to turn the discord between the brothers and sisters, and the discontent on the part of the people, to his profit.”
Salme describes how, despite her attempt to remain neutral, her love for her sister Chole, Madjid’s chief critic and enemy, ultimately led to her being swept up in a conspiracy to cast Madjid from the seat of power and install Bargasch as sultan. As a child, Salme had taught herself to write by copying Arabic verses from the Qur’an onto camel bones. Now 15 years of age, she became the secretary for Bargasch’s party. But in spite of the conspirators’ efforts, Madjid managed to stop the insurrection, and while Bargasch was exiled in Bombay, Salme retreated to one of the plantations she received as part of her maternal inheritance. Family tensions remained when she returned to Stone Town, and although she made peace with Madjid, their peacemaking caused an irreparable rift with Chole, whom Salme would never see again.
Shortly thereafter, Salme describes meeting and leaving Zanzibar with Ruldolph-Heinrich Ruete — though as mentioned earlier, the circumstances surrounding their courtship and elopement remain concealed in Salme’s narrative. From this point on, Salme offers a rather sparse account of her experience in Europe, which, as her posthumously published letters suggest, was full of anguish. Salme also describes her thwarted attempt to see her brother Bargasch when he visited London. The book ends with an account of her return to Zanzibar 19 years after leaving.
The reason I’ve bothered to outline the book’s structure in full is because I find the structure itself so fascinating. Not only does Salme frustrate our desire for Oriental romance, but she also frustrates our desire for a continuous narrative. Both of these choices seem especially strange, considering that she wrote the book hoping it would provide her with much-needed financial support. So why didn’t she succumb to what she undoubtedly must have felt as pressure to deliver a more conventional autobiography? For one thing, the division in her text between memoir and ethnography may be a sign of her having a divided audience: she claims to write to inform her children of her childhood, but she also clearly writes to educate a larger European readership about the realities of the slice of the Arab world she knew. This division of audience results in a necessary fragmentation of narrative. But this fragmentation goes beyond the division in her intended audiences. Indeed, as evidenced by the division in her name (Sayyida Salme/Emily Ruete), the author’s existential experience at the time of writing was very much located between two worlds. And indeed, both the form and content of Salme’s narrative bear the marks of this existential division.
Yet Memoirs of an Arabian Princess fascinates me for another reason, this time linked to the question of history. Although Salme recounts her involvement in an attempted palace revolution, she seems intentionally to obscure the extent of her involvement in the political goings-on both in Europe and its broader empires. For instance, she mentions the personal grief the British government caused her when its representatives conned her into not visiting her brother Bargasch during his visit. But she never discusses how, after her husband’s death, she became involved in the political machinations of Otto von Bismarck, who wanted to make her son the next sultan of Zanzibar.
This point about historical erasure may seem, well, pointless — especially given that Salme’s is a self-proclaimed work of memoir, the emphasis of which is personal rather than historical or political. But from another angle the point seems germane. Indeed, one of the things that I find so fascinating about Salme’s life is that it spanned an astonishing set of economic and political transformations that took place under her family’s reign.
Two major transformations in particular had an effect that would significantly alter the economic and political structure of Zanzibar and refigure how the island related to the wider world. The first transformation was the shift from exporting slaves to using them for the local production of cloves (on Zanzibar) and grains (on the East African coast). Up until the early nineteenth century, East Africa had been a rich source of slaves for both the French and British empires, but once the British put the kibosh on the slave trade, slaves were simply rerouted to local plantations, where their labor drove a very lucrative agricultural production. The second transformation was the acceleration of “mercantile capitalism,” which was an early form of capitalism that functioned through the transportation of goods from markets where they were cheap to markets where they were expensive. Mercantile capitalism flourished in Zanzibar due to an increased international demand for luxuries such as ivory and the decreasing prices of imported manufactured goods.
These transformations had a drastic effect on Zanzibar’s international relations. As the historian Abdul Sheriff writes: “Through the export of ivory, cloves and other commodities, and the import of manufactured goods, it was therefore inevitable that the predominantly commercial economy of Zanzibar would be sucked into the whirlpool of the international capitalist system.” Getting sucked into this whirlpool meant that Zanzibar’s economic boom increasingly subordinated it to the dictates of the British Empire, which controlled the Indian merchant class in East Africa and was a global leader in abolishing the slave trade (if not slavery).
Nowhere in Salme’s memoir are the complexities of these historical transformations more evident than in what she herself admits is a controversial defense of slavery in the “Eastern nations.” Although most objectionable to modern liberal sensibilities, Salme’s occasional instances of bald racism are not what make this defense controversial (e.g., “Everybody who has lived in the United states, Brazil, or any country where there are negroes, will corroborate the fact that, apart from many good qualities, the black race cannot be induced to work, only forced”). More controversial is Salme’s strategy of wielding foreign travelers’ accounts of the Arab world, which accounts outline the benefits of slavery as an institution. In general, the travelers quoted in Salme’s chapter on slavery emphasize that the institution actually benefits slaves by removing them from squalor and improving their quality of life. They also claim that slaves in the “East” are rarely if ever overburdened with labor, and they underscore that slaves are typically incorporated into a larger family structure, eventually being set free. Salme even floats an especially inflated proclamation from the Englishman Joseph Thompson: “It would seem, indeed, as if this class here is in a particularly comfortable position, and enjoys ten times more liberty than thousands of our clerks and shop girls.” Although Salme does condemn the conditions under which slaves are taken from their homes and transported to the coast, she ultimately appeals to the ancient pedigree of this institution as a reason why it should remain intact.
Given Salme’s erstwhile resistance to European (mis)readings of the Arab world, her liberal use of European travelogues to defend Arab slavery seems strange. Admittedly, it does make strategic sense for her to use (male) European voices to argue against the European bias against the slave trade. After all, her own rationale would not likely have held much weight, considering the complexity of her very particular subject position: a Muslim woman from the Arab world who left her home for Europe, converted to the Anglican faith, then spent the rest of her life toggling between two radically different life-worlds.
And yet, what remains concealed in Salme’s appeal to select Europeans’ positive accounts of slavery is precisely her peculiar subject position as a princess of Zanzibar and Oman. Preferring to remain on the level of personal experience, Salme neglects to mention the historical fact that it had only been in the previous seventy-five years or so that Arab slave traders had begun to divert slaves from the international trade network to Zanzibar’s clove plantations and to coastal grain plantations. These plantations were major sources of wealth for her father, the “merchant prince” himself, whose extraordinary palaces and vast holdings served as testaments to his overflowing coffers. Clearly, given her own rhapsodizing on the spoils of her childhood, Seyyid Said’s astonishing wealth enabled Salme’s lavish upbringing. Salme’s opinion on the issue of slavery cannot therefore be separated from her sociohistorical privilege. And indeed, when the British pressured her father into ending slavery in his corner of the world, her sympathies lay with the ruling class:
These were hard times for the owners, who complained bitterly. . . . Some of them had a hundred or more slaves on their estates; all these received their liberty on one day, which caused the ruin of their owners. The latter could procure no men to work for their plantations, and consequently they could get no revenues from them; questionable good fortune of suddenly finding itself saddled with a few thousand idlers, vagabonds, and thieves.
I find it at once easy and difficult to understand Salme’s position, given that at the time of writing the author found herself penniless and without support. On the one hand, being of royal blood and having been married to a man of some means, it seems obvious that Salme would have identified with the fall of the ruling class. On the other hand, one could also imagine her identifying with the plight of the newly “liberated” slaves who, she herself confirms, “found themselves for the first time in their lives thrown upon their own resources, homeless, and utterly without means of maintenance.” Indeed, this description could just as easily apply to her own situation in Europe, some seven thousand miles from her home. Much like the numerous other contradictions in Salme’s memoir, this one doubtless emerges from the author’s own precarious historical location, suspended between two worlds.
Seven years have passed since I first heard Sayyida Salme’s name, and knowing what I now know about her unique life, I wonder what it would be like to walk once more through the halls of the House of Wonders in Zanzibar, conjuring her presence and imagining her singular place in international history. My memories of my initial visit to Zanzibar are a bit of a wash now, but I’m certain that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend the scope of her experience and influence. Seen through the lens of her life, how would my understanding of the island and its history change? How would I understand the vast disparity between the enormous wealth of the palaces and the poverty of much of today’s population? How would this understanding alter the romance of navigating Stone Town’s narrow corridors? What feelings would arise while standing in the old slave market? But then I also wonder how my sense of Zanzibar’s place in the wider world would change. Looking out across the cerulean waters of the Indian Ocean, would Zanzibar still seem the isolated paradise travelers typically take it to be? Or would Salme’s magnificent life story help reframe the narrative of globalization in this part of the world? The latter certainly seems possible to me.
Ruete, Emily. Memoiren einer Arabischen Prinzessin aus Sansibar. The Gallery Publications, 2004 .
———. Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar. The Gallery Publications, 1998.*
Sheriff, Abdul. Slaves, Spices and Ivory in Zanzibar: Integration of an East African Commercial Empire into the World Economy, 1770–1873. James Currey / East African Educational Publishers / Mkuki na Nyota / Ohio University Press, 1987.
*My edition is a Zanzibari publisher’s reprint of the original English translation, which appeared in 1888 from D. Appleton and Co. in New York. No translator is listed for this edition. Another English translation came out in 1907, this one translated by Lionel Strachey and published by Doubleday, Page and Company