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"From Harem to Hausfrau", by Flo Montgomery










One Sunday I made my way to the shop of my friend Tamim, to the strains of the Agnus Dei, being sung in harmony by hundreds of musical voices in the Catholic Cathedral nearby. His house, from a lower room of which he sells antiques and curios, has a doorstep decorated by a row of pretty English flowered ceramic tiles - the kind with a raised design, which were fired in the late 19th century. They are often seen in Zanzibar octagonal tables or set around bevelled mirrors on cupboard doors.

Inside was a wonderful jumble of dusty treasure. Worm-eaten books with uninteresting titles of early 20th century fiction lay on collapsing shelves under ticking wall clocks. Victorian glass and china shared table tops with engine parts, 12th century glass beads, shiny varnished coconut shells carved into miniature dhows or tortoises and silver plated forks with bent tines. Fascinated by the cool round beauty of some mysterious white porcelain objects which lay on a stained pewter tray, I was disappointed to find that they were only unused fittings for obsolete baths and sinks.

In another corner I noticed a pile of crumbling beads whose white outer coating, probably lime, was falling away to reveal globes of rich red glass. Tamim assured me that they were very old.

“Someone brought them in the other day. He said he dug them up in the German graveyard.”

“German graves - where is that, Tamim?”

“Over there, you know.” He gestured wildly in conflicting directions. I charitably assumed that the digger was the cemetery gardener cleaning up the flowerbeds but in Zanzibar who knows - scratch the surface and you are sure to turn up some history wherever you go.

I poked about again, finding old East African coins from German and British times. Many of them had a hole cut in the middle - making them perfect for stringing as jewellery or talismans. Others had been used in the past by enterprising Zanzibar antique dealers as inlay decoration on old wooden chests. On the same table were silver rupees and Maria Theresa dollars - some of them cut in half, thus becoming half-dollars. Silent pocket watches lay about, grown dim and dusty; one was inscribed with the name of a Colonel in the Indian army. “From the Officers of the Regiment.....” Lined up on wooden shelves in a recessed, arched alcove, there were chunky little glass perfume and soda bottles.

Suddenly I focussed on a small photograph amongst all the clutter. Framed in black, a lady in Victorian dress sat primly facing the world with a half-smile on her face evoking shades of the Mona Lisa. Gingerly extricating her from a pile of cracked 78 records (“After the Dance” and “Begin the Beguine”) I realised that there were more pictures... a set of nine. One portrayed a stiff European gentleman in town dress, complete with shiny top hat. Could he have something to do with the enigmatic lady? The next pictures were of various Sultans; others were of the Sultan’s Palace, the slave market, and the harbour in the last century. There were titles beneath each picture, written in German. Finally to my surprise, amongst this respectable historical memorabilia was a small photograph with no title of - a harem girl from the Arabian Nights.

Her half-shadowed, sultry face resting on one delicate silver-braceleted and beringed hand, she stared out at the photographer. Her expression was nonchalant, slightly bored. The eyes and mouth seemed familiar to me - there was no smile this time but surely.... I picked up the first picture that had caught my eye and there unmistakably was the same face, the same lady but grown older.

Princess Salme     Emily Reute

I realised that these were copies of the illustrations from the book “Memoirs of an Arabian Princess”, which was written by a daughter of the first Sultan of Zanzibar, who eloped with a handsome German trader in the last century. Looking closely under the first portrait, I read the title: “Emily Ruete, geborene Salme, Prinzessin von Oman und Sansibar (1844 - 1924)”. Standing in the musty little shop, memories of the story of Salme came back to me. Saying a distracted goodbye to Tamim I hurried home to consult my library. This was her history in brief:

Seyyida Salme (sometimes known as Suleima or Salima) binti Said bin Sultan Al Busaidiya was born on the 30th August 1844 at Mtoni Palace, about five miles north of Zanzibar town, one of the later children of Seyyid Said of Oman, who had transferred his capital to Zanzibar. Her mother Jilfidan was a Circassian slave, tall and strong with startling blue eyes, pale ivory coloured skin and black hair that came down to her knees. When she was very young, war broke out in the Ottoman Empire and a marauding band of Arnauts killed her parents and captured herself, her elder brother and younger sister. The children were soon separated and Jilfidan never saw her siblings again. By the time she was seven she was in Said’s household, being brought up with two of his daughters. When she was older she became a suria, or concubine. She was a favourite of the Sultan, being both beautiful and good-natured.

Seyyid Said had only two legal wives, the first of whom was Azze bint Saif, a princess of Oman who came with him to Zanzibar. Bint Azze ruled the Mtoni household with a rod of iron. In later years Said also married Sheherezade, a granddaughter of the Shah of Persia. Neither of his legal wives had children who reached maturity but the many sarari produced numerous offspring. At the time of Said’s death there were 75 concubines, eighteen daughters and eighteen sons surviving. It was from the sons that the heirs of the Sultan were chosen.

In her book Seyyida Salme gives wonderful descriptions of the various palaces, especially of Beit il Mtoni, where she grew up:

“Everywhere in the large courtyard, man and beast lived together quite amicably, without in the least inconveniencing each other. Peacocks, gazelles, guinea-fowls, flamingoes, geese, ducks and ostriches roamed about in perfect liberty and were cherished and fed by young and old. For us children it was always a great joy to collect the eggs that lay about here and there, especially the large ostrich eggs and to hand them over to the chief cook, who used to reward us for our trouble with all kind of sweets.”

She also writes about the dress, jewellery and customs and describes the Persian baths which were part of every palace. She mentions some of her brothers and sisters and their mothers of many nationalities and speaks of her powerful father with affection. The family was large and there were intrigues but also great warmth between the many members. Said seems to have been autocratic but kind and just - with his family as well as within his Sultanate.

Jilfidan was friendly with another concubine named Sara, also a Circassian and the mother of Majid and his sister Chadudj. When Majid came of age he and this sister moved into Beit il Watoro; he invited Jilfidan and the seven year old Salme to move in with them. They stayed there for two years and then moved into neighbouring Beit il Tani with Salme’s favourite sister, Chole. She went for lessons with her many half brothers and sisters at the main palace, Beit il Sahel, where they were taught the Koran, reading, writing and a little arithmetic. All these houses were close together, near the sea front and connected with suspension bridges. Salme was mischievous and played many pranks and tricks on her elders. In 1856, when she was 12 years old, her father died and her brother Majid became Sultan. Three years later, Salme’s much loved mother died in a cholera epidemic and in her grief and loneliness she became even closer to Chole.

Majid was very fond of Salme and she of him; in spite of this however, after her mother’s death she joined in some serious intrigues against him together with Chole and their brother Barghash, who wanted the throne for himself. The conspiracy failed, Barghash was exiled to India for two years and the sisters retired to the countryside. Salme had an estate inland at Kisimbani where she lived for a while but she missed the sea so much that she rented an estate with a villa at Bububu and moved in there for a while, until Majid asked her to give it up to the British Consul. This she did and thereby became reconciled with her brother.

She then moved back into the town and occupied a house near the old fort. The building across a narrow alleyway from it belonged to Koll and Ruete, a German merchant trading company. (This house is now part of the People’s Bank of Zanzibar.) Sometime after this, Salme met Rudolph Heinrich Ruete, one of the partners in the firm. He was born on March 10th 1839, the son of a respectable Hamburg schoolmaster; he had been in Zanzibar for about ten years. The flat roof of Ruete’s house was a little lower than Salme’s and she used to chat to him and his friends from a barred window.

Salme and Heinrich became lovers, apparently meeting somewhere in the countryside - possibly at Kisimbani. News came to Majid’s ears that Salme was pregnant. He sent one of his female relatives to find out if the rumour was true but Salme persuaded the woman not to betray her: confirmation of her condition would have been tantamount to a sentence of death.

Salme had learned a little English and made some friends in the foreign community of Zanzibar. She now appealed to Mrs Emily Seward, the wife of the British Consul and also to Dr John Kirk. They both decided that the Consul should be kept in the dark about the situation. Kirk contacted Captain Malcolm Sabine Pasley, of the British naval ship H.M.S. Highflyer, which happened to be in port. On the night of August 24th 1866 Salme made her way down to the beach in Shangani in front of the British Consulate, where a boat from the Highflyer was waiting for her. She jumped in and was rowed out to the ship which set sail immediately for Aden.

Salme waited at Aden in the house of a Spanish couple named Mass, for her lover to join her. Her child, a boy, was born in Aden on December 7th and the register in the Anglican Christchurch Cathedral there shows that he was baptized on April 1st 1867, with the name of Heinrich. Salme never mentions this son or her pregnancy in her book. Her later children appeared to know nothing of his existence. Whatever happened to Heinrich remains a mystery until today.

Inexplicably, Heinrich Ruete remained in Zanzibar until six months after Salme’s escape. Then he went first to the Seychelles where he stayed for three more months and finally reached Aden on May 30th. Salme was baptized in the Cathedral and the pair were married and then set sail for Marseille all on that very day. As the child was not with them and after his baptism is not mentioned in any other available documents, one has to assume either that he died between April 1st and May 30th, or that he was given away for adoption. My own theory is the latter case, and that the child was settled in the Seychelles for a while and later returned to Zanzibar with one of Salme’s friends or half sisters. This would explain why Heinrich Ruete, who was in all ways very loving and protective of Salme, took such a devious route to join her.

The Ruetes settled in Hamburg, where Salme made every effort to adapt to her new way of life. She learned to speak and write German almost perfectly. She dressed beautifully in the cumbersome western dress, ran a household herself and had three more children, two girls and a boy, in the space of three years. Heinrich proved to be a kind and faithful husband and they appear to have been very happy until he slipped while jumping off a horse-tram and was run over. He died, just over three years after their marriage, on 6 th August 1870.

Ruete had been a wealthy man but the guardians of his estate appear to have embezzled most of his funds. Salme, alone with three small children to raise and educate, found herself struggling to make ends meet. She wrote her famous book but never gained much income from it, in spite of its many reprints. She had sympathetic friends amongst the highest German nobility, including Crown Princess Victoria. With their help Salme tried to get some support from her estranged family. However, Majid had died two months after her husband and their brother Barghash was now on the throne. Barghash refused to have anything to do with Salme. She had eloped with a foreigner and had broken Islamic Law, being now a Christian who had given up the faith of her birth. At the time of Seyyid Said’s death Salme, like all her brothers and sisters, had already received an inheritance. She had taken part of this with her to Germany and as far as her family in Zanzibar was concerned, she was entitled to no further benefits.

Nevertheless, Salme tried repeatedly to get some kind of settlement of her claims. To receive recognition and forgiveness by her brothers was probably her real, unconscious wish. She felt alone in Europe and missed the warmth of her childhood homes. Barghash never spoke with her again, even when, during his state visit to England she travelled to London in the hope of meeting him there.

In 1885 she persuaded the German Chancellor Bismarck to let her sail with her children to Zanzibar with a fleet of German ships. Sir John Kirk, who had become British Consul-General, tried to persuade Barghash to see her but still he refused and stated: “I have no sister, she died many years ago.” Salme promenaded up and down the town with her German companion but though veiled ladies of the harem opened their windows and waved to her she was not able to meet and talk properly with any of her childhood friends, for fear of the Sultan’s displeasure. She had high hopes that the German Government would help her regain her patrimony but this they refused to do; they concentrated on pressurising Barghash with respect to their own interests in East Africa and her cause was not advanced at all.

Three years later Barghash died and was succeeded by his brother Khalifa. Salme decided to try again, this time on her own. Accompanied by a daughter she sailed to Zanzibar and took up residence in the German Hospital. The German Consul, Michahelles von Bismarck, warned her that she could expect no help from him. She even applied to Colonel Euan Smith (who was now the British Consul-General) for help, offering to become a British subject. Khalifa still refused to see her and in October, bitterly disappointed, Emily Ruete departed from Zanzibar for the last time.

Resolving to have nothing more to do with England or Germany, Salme moved to Syria the following year and lived there for the next twenty-five years, mostly in Beirut. She was very close to her three children and her daughters Antonie and Rosalie lived with her until their respective marriages. Her son Rudolph Said was a German Officer. In 1917 she moved back to Germany but her situation at the end of the war was very hard due to devaluation of the German Mark. However by this time the generation which had known her in Zanzibar had died away and with them the animosity towards her, so in 1922 Seyyid Khalifa bin Harub finally bestowed a pension upon her.

On February 29th 1924 Emily Ruete née Salme binti Said died of double pneumonia at her daughter Rosalie’s house in Jena. Her ashes were buried in Heinrich Ruete’s grave together with a small bag of sand from the Zanzibar beach which was found in her possessions. A palm tree was planted by the grave and the text on her tombstone is as follows: “Faithful in his innermost heart is he, who loves his homeland like you”. (An excerpt from Theodor Fontane’s ballad “Graf Douglas”)

Today any visitor can go to the Palace Museum in Zanzibar and see the Princess Salme exhibit, which has an interesting collection of memorabilia and writings about her. The best part of her life was in the beginning and the rest was tragedy, bitterness and regret. She must have been an amazingly strong woman; this German housewife persuaded the crowned heads of Europe and the German Chancellor Bismarck to pay serious attention to her. Ironically she was the longest survivor of all Said’s children and perhaps today her name is better known than those of Said, Majid and Barghash themselves.

I closed my books and looked thoughtfully at the photo of Salme in Arab dress. There is a sadness in her eyes, gazing steadily back at us from another time. What a Sultan she might have made!

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