The story of the Zanzibari princess who fled Africa in 1867 to start life with her German lover

Princess Sayyida Salme of Zanzibar

Princess Sayyida Salme of Zanzibar was only 22 years when she had an affair with wealthy German merchant Rudolph Heinrich Ruete and got pregnant forcing her to flee from any harm under her own people for such an abominable act. But, the interesting aspects of her life began years before her affair and marriage to a white man as early as 1867.

Born to Said bin Sultan, the Sultan of Muscat and Oman from 1806 until his death in 1856, Sayyida Salme was the last child of the powerful Sultan and heir to vast wealth, power and property like her 25 older siblings.

Sayyida Salme in Zanzibar. Image from  Alchetron .
Princess Sayyida Salme

By her father, she was named Salama bint Said, Princess of Zanzibar and Oman and was popularly called Sayyida Salme by all. Princess Sayyida lived an adventurous life due to interesting happenings. She first lived with some of her siblings in the magnificent Bet il Mtoni palace where they were fully guarded and protected by soldiers of her father’s army.

In 1851, she lived with her brother and then finally moved to live with her mother in Bet il Tani when she was 9 years old. The frequent move made her learn to speak Swahili and Arabic, however, unlike her brothers who were given an education, Sayyida was only trained to shoot and defend herself by her older brothers in times of war.

At the age of 12, Sayyida lost her father and was allowed access to her inheritance of 5,429 pounds which could be more than half a million pounds today. Aside from that, she inherited several plantations and houses and extra money from both her parents after the death of her mother in 1859. Being too young, Sayyida had to live with her brother Majid bin Said of Zanzibar.

In her free time, Sayyida secretly taught herself how to read and write, a skill which was not handed to females at the time but would prove handy in the years to come in her life. In the same year of her mother’s death, 1859, a huge dispute started between her brothers Majid bin Said of Zanzibar and Barghash bin Said of Zanzibar causing Sayyida and her 34 other siblings to take sides. Sayyida supported her brother Majid until she was forced by several of her older siblings to side with Barghash.

At the age of 15, her writing skill contributed greatly to Barghash’s government acting as the general secretary with the sole duty of writing official letters and recording and filing documents until Barghash was exiled. She returned to live with Majid.

Her return to her brother made her an outcast to her siblings and several others in the society forcing her to develop great relations with several Westerners including the wealthy German trader Rudolph Heinrich Ruete.

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Princess Sayyida Salme

Sayyida lived close to Rudolph Heinrich Ruete and with time, the two fell in love and had an affair which soon became difficult to hide. Throughout Zanzibar and among the Western society, their relationship was shunned and even caused Rudolph a great loss in his trading business but the two carried on until Sayyida became pregnant at the age of 22 in 1866.

Aware of the problems she could face with her royal family especially her brother Majid who became the Sultan of Zanzibar, Sayyida fled to Yemen against the request of her brother who had previously planned to execute her but failed. There, she gave birth and lost her child, however, after her lover Rudolph joined her in Yemen, the two went off to Germany, got married and had children together.

Sayyida Salme, her husband Rudolph Ruete and their two children
Sayyida Salme, her husband Rudolph Ruete and their two children

In Germany, Sayyida was baptized and accepted the Christian faith and was given the name Emily Ruete. While in Germany, Sayyida documented her life in an autobiography Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar. She lived with her husband until he died in 1870.

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Sayyida visited Zanzibar years later and is noted as the first woman to record her observations about the way of life in Germany and Zanzibar pushing for the education of young girls.

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

Today, a museum in her name, known as the Princess Salme Museum exists in Tanzania for people to visit and know more about her story. Her book is also available for purchase and gives a more detailed look into her life story.

Last Edited by:Victor Ativie Updated: July 16, 2020


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