Salme was a daughter of Sultan Said. She was born at the Mtoni Palace in August 1844. Her mother was a surie (secondary wife) from Circassia, in southern Russia. Salme later wrote Memoirs of an Arabian Princess, from which we learn many interesting details about life at court and the events of the time.
In her book Salme describes her early childhood at the Mtoni Palace, where she lived until she was seven years old. Here she learnt sewing, embroidery and lace making from her mother. She and her brothers and sisters had a private teacher and lessons were conducted in an open gallery containing just a single large mat and a Koran on a stand. The royal children were taught the Arabic alphabet, reading and a little arithmetic. The boys were also taught to write, using home-made ink, and the well-bleached shoulder blade of a camel for a slate. But Salme was rebellious and taught herself to write in secret.
Twice a day, early in the morning and in the evening, all children above five years old had riding lessons. When they had made sufficient progress, the boys received Arabian horses, while the girls received white donkeys from Muscat. When the princesses rode their donkeys to the clove plantations, slaves ran by the side of each animal with a large parasol to protect the riders from the sun. The children also learnt to swim in the sea at an early age. Salme was given her own African slaves as personal attendants. At bedtime, one slave would massage her, while another fanned gently, until the princess fell asleep, still fully dressed. Slaves fanned the princess all night. In the morning, her slaves massaged her gently until she awoke. Her bath was filled with fresh spring water. Slaves laid out the day's clothes, on which jasmine and orange blossoms had been strewn overnight, and which were scented with amber and musk before they were worn. Windows and doors were left open throughout the year, even in colder, wetter weather when a charcoal fire was burning. The fresh air helped to disperse the strong scents. Slaves washed the linen daily. It dried in little more than half an hour, was smoothed flat (not ironed) and put away.
As a child, Salme was allowed to mix freely with boys of her own age. After she was nine years old, the only men allowed to see her were her father, close male relatives, and her slaves. She wore trousers, a shirt reaching to her ankles, and a handkerchief for the head. The shirt and trousers were always of a different pattern. On her walks, she wore a schele, a large shawl of black silk. When she appeared before a stranger, the law required her to be veiled; part of the face, the neck and chin, and above all, the ankles, had to be completely covered.
In October 1859 Salme became involved in family intrigue between her older brothers, Barghash and Majid. She helped Barghash escape to the Marseilles clove plantation, after his attempt to overthrow Majid failed. Majid never punished Salme for her part in the plot but by siding with Barghash she lost the friendship of many of her other brothers and sisters. When she renewed her friendship with Majid, she isolated herself from her fellow conspirators.
By 1866 Salme was living in Zanzibar Town. Although 22 years old, she was still unmarried. Rejected by her family, she began socialising regularly with many of the foreigners on the island. She became friendly with a young German merchant from Hamburg, called Heinrich Ruete, who was living in a house next to hers. They began a covert relationship, speaking to each other from their balconies across the narrow street, and meeting secretly in the countryside beyond the town.
In July 1866 Salme discovered she was pregnant. Some historians have suggested that she was forced to leave Zanzibar in a hurry, as an illegitimate pregnancy would have brought disgrace to her family and the whole Busaidi dynasty and could have resulted in her death. Others have described her romantic 'elopement' with Heinrich Ruete. However, an analysis by Said el-Gheithy of the Princess Salme Institute presents events in a slightly different light: 'No doubt, her pregnancy sent shock waves through her clan and threatened the position of the European traders, reliant on the goodwill of the sultan. Yet following extensive research, and through a knowledge of her personality from at least one person who knew her, it seems Salme was a very organised and stable individual, with a strength of personality which made her adverse to irrational movements. We must not overlook or underestimate her ability to choose rationally from the options available. The concept of an “elopement” represents her as somewhat flighty. Rather, the move to Germany should be understood as a planned emigration and her departure could be described, to use a Swahili phrase, as “leaving without saying goodbye”.'
Salme left Zanzibar on a British warship, and for several months after her departure a wave of anti-European feeling spread through Zanzibar Town. Another British warship was sent to suppress any possible reprisals against Europeans. When Salme reached Aden, she stayed with some European friends, renounced Islam and was baptised into the Anglican Church, with the name Emily. In Zanzibar, Heinrich wound up his affairs, then joined Salme in Aden. They were married immediately and travelled to Heinrich's home in Hamburg.
In the following three years Salme and Heinrich had two daughters and a son. Tragically, in August 1871, Heinrich fell while jumping from a tram, and was run over; he died three days later. No longer welcome in Zanzibar, Salme remained in Germany, making one short visit to London in 1875, and two brief returns to Zanzibar in 1885 and 1888, but her attempts at reconciliation were unsuccessful. She lived in exile in Syria until 1914 and died in Germany in 1924. Among the possessions found after her death was a bag of sand from the beach at Zanzibar.
In Zanzibar Town, Princess Salme is remembered at the Palace Museum, which has a room devoted to her life and writings. This was set in place by Said el-Gheithy in collaboration with the Museums of Zanzibar. In London, the Princess Salme Institute was established in 1994 to raise awareness about the life and writings of this remarkable woman, and to promote training and research relevant to Zanzibar. The Institute is based at the Africa Centre (38 King St, London WC2E 8JT, UK; Ø 020 7240 0199; e firstname.lastname@example.org).
For cultural events in Zanzibar, such as the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF), the Princess Salme Institute acts as a contact point in Europe. The Institute also mounts an exhibition about Princess Salme at the Festival. Additionally, the Institute's modest resources keep up the enthusiasm for Salme's life, and also provides practical help to academics, researchers, visitors and professionals working on or around Zanzibar. In the future, the Institute hopes to establish a larger base in Zanzibar from where various projects will be administered. These include 'Sayyida Salme tours' where guides will take visitors to the places and palaces lived in and frequented by Princess Salme, while providing a background history of her remarkable story.