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Salme, the Princess from Oman who called herself Emely and married a German merchant

The moving story of the daughter of the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar – Tour operators are now reviving the memory of Oman and Zanzibar’s shared past – Oman is the partner country of ITB Berlin 2020

The moving story of the daughter of the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar – Tour operators are now reviving the memory of Oman and Zanzibar’s shared past – Oman is the partner country of ITB Berlin 2020

It is useful to know the background to this story In order to understand it. Geographically, Oman and Zanzibar are far apart. Oman lies on the eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula and the East African islands of Zanzibar are 30 kilometres off the coast of Tanzania. Some time around 1730 Saif bin Sultan II conquered a large part of the East African coast as well as Zanzibar. The Said dynasty was founded in 1750 and still rules to this day. The father of Salme, the subject of this story, was a member of this dynasty. He reigned over 45 palaces and wanted to make Zanzibar a centre for the slave trade and selling cloves. He moved from the Omani capital Muscat and set up residence in Zanzibar town, at first temporarily, then remained there.

Sayyida Salme, one of 18 daughters to the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar, was born in 1844. Her mother was one of Sultan Sayyid Said’s concubines, a Circassian slave from the northern Caucasus. Salme was a happy child, a “free spirit and keen to learn“, as Tink Diaz described her in the 2007 award-winning documentary The Princess of Zanzibar. The princess was close to her half-brother Majid, who following the death of his father became Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar.

In love and pregnant

At the age of 22 Salme fell in love with the German merchant Rudolph Heinrich Ruete who lived next door to the Sultan’s palace and was a clove trader. Salme’s secret relationship with the stranger did not go unnoticed by the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar for long. Nevertheless, it was tolerated. When she became pregnant it was clear that she had to flee, for under Sharia law her illegal relationship would soon become obvious to all. A British warship took her to Aden in Yemen. There she waited a long time for her lover to arrive who continued to go about his business in Zanzibar unhindered by the authorities. When Salme’s son was born in Aden his father was absent. Finally, the merchant arrived in Aden and the couple completed all the formalities in a single day. They married, the child was baptised, and they left Aden for Hamburg.

With her departure for Europe the life of this young Arabian princess, who now called herself Emely, would soon take its course. Her son died while she was still travelling. Emely Ruete and the German merchant had three more children. In August 1870 her husband was run over by a horse-drawn tram and died. The young widow remained alone with her children and longed to go home. She always carried a pocketful of sand from Zanzibar around with her to soothe her feelings of homesickness.

Even after having lived in Germany for so many years she was a stranger to its people and vice-versa. The Hamburg authorities rejected her inheritance claims, so she moved to cities where it was cheaper to live: Dresden, Rudolstadt, Berlin and finally Jena, where she died in 1924.

Caught amid colonial in-fighting

Emely Ruete tried to press inheritance claims in Zanzibar several times. At one point she travelled to London to meet her half-brother Bargash, who after the death of Majid had become Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar. She spent seven weeks waiting with her children, but her half-brother refused to receive here. The British government, which as a colonial power had an interest in Zanzibar, promised to support her children if she decided not to meet the ruler of Oman and Zanzibar. She agreed, but was deceived. The British government reneged on its word.

Bismarck, who shared a colonial interest in East Africa together with Britain, also tried to exploit the former princess for his ambitions. In 1885 and 1888 he enabled her to travel to Zanzibar twice under the protection of the German authorities. Once again, her half-brother Sultan Bargash refused to see her. In 1890 Great Britain and Germany signed the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty, at which point the German government lost all interest in the Arabian princess. Contrary to what its title implied the treaty had nothing to do with swapping islands. Germany’s imperial government gave up any claims regarding Zanzibar – which had not previously been a German colony – and gained the island of Heligoland from Britain. Zanzibar became a British protectorate in 1890.

Tour operators revive the memory of Oman and Zanzibar’s shared past

Emely Ruete had better luck as an author. Her Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar, first published in 1886, attracted a lot of attention and provided her with a modest income. Letters Home, her second book, was not such a success. She earned her livelihood teaching Arabic. It was only after the death of her half-brothers that her nephew Sultan Khalifa bin Bargash agreed to his fugitive aunt in Germany receiving a small allowance from 1922 onwards. 

When in 1924 the funeral of Emely Ruete took place at Ohlsdorfer Friedhof, a famous cemetery in Hamburg, the pocketful of sand from Zanzibar was buried with her. Inside the History Museum at the Sultan’s Palace of Zanzibar is a room devoted to the Arabian princess, together with furniture of the era from the 1860s. Some of her writings and clothes are on display too.

A number of German tour operators including SKR and Wikinger Reisen are now reviving the memory of Oman and Zanzibar’s shared past and organising a combined journey to both these destinations which are geographically so far apart. Wikinger Reisen promotes its trips to Zanzibar thus: “We will follow in the footsteps of the Sultan of Oman, who appreciated what this island paradise had to offer and made Zanzibar his home… and will explore how the shared past remains alive to this day.“

Redaktionsbüro Schwartz, Sabine Neumann and Horst Schwartz

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