An Arabian Tale in Aden: Princess Salme's Odyssey

The dawn of May 30th, 1867, marked a momentous day in Aden's annals as it witnessed the union of cultures and hearts with the marriage of Heinrich Ruete, a young German businessman, to Sayyida Salme bint Said Al-Busaid, a princess from the house of the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar. This historic event, enveloped in the aura of both romance and political intrigue, unfolded against the backdrop of Aden's Christ Church at Steamer Point and set the stage for a journey that would traverse continents and leave an indelible mark on the fabric of history. This account retraces their steps, from clandestine escapes to royal alliances, encapsulating a narrative that is as much a personal love story as it is a chronicle of a pivotal era in the Arabian Peninsula.

On the morning of 30 May 1867 a young German businessman, Heinrich Ruete, arrived in Aden by sea from Zanzibar. That same morning in Christ Church, Steamer Point, he married Sayyida Salme bint Said Al-Busaid who had been baptised in the name of Emily Sa’id Ruete immediately before the marriage service. In the afternoon the couple set sail for Hamburg with their infant son who had been born in Aden the previous December.

Salme bint Sa’id was the daughter of Sultan Sa’id bin Sultan, Ruler of Oman and Zanzibar (1804-1856) and the creator of an African commercial empire which stretched from Mogadishu to Mozambique. She was born in Zanzibar in 1844 of a Circassian slave mother who died in a cholera epidemic when Salme was fifteen. Salme then went to live with an elder half-sister, Khole, under whose influence she played a minor role in an abortive plot led by Sayyid Barghash to supplant his (and their) half-brother, Sayyid Majid, as Ruler of Zanzibar. After a period of ostracism which she spent in one or other of the plantations inherited from her father, Salme made her peace with Sayyid Majid and in 1866, now aged 22, returned to the capital where, as she recorded in her memoirs years later:

"I made the acquaintance of my future husband. My house was next to his; the flat roof of his house was a little lower than my own. He held his dinner parties in a room opposite to where I could watch them; for he knew that this display of a European festivity must be very interesting to me. Our friendship from which in time sprang love, was soon known in the town ..."

Writing of Heinrich Ruete at this time, the acting British Consul in Zanzibar, Dr Edwin Seward, described him as ‘a person of about eight and twenty summers, the son of a respectable German schoolmaster, [who] began life in the office of a Hamburg merchant, completed his training for the East Coast traffic in Zanzibar... and subsequently became the head ... of the modest yet flourishing house of Ruete & Co. He has been adequately educated, speaks fluently ... French and English, besides his native German, is an intelligent and able man of business, and has borne a character for a very blameless life, at least so far as is known in Zanzibar’.

Since their child was born in December 1866, Salme’s pregnancy would have been noticeable by August of that year; and the normal consequence of such a liaison in a strictly Muslim society would have been stoning to death. Heinrich Ruete made arrangements to smuggle Salme out of the country on board a German vessel, the Mathilde, but at the last moment one of Salme’s slaves revealed her intentions and the attempt was frustrated. However, on the night of 24 August, through the good offices of Mrs Seward, wife of the Acting British Consul, and Dr John Kirk, the British Agency Surgeon, Saline was taken aboard HMS Highflyer, which happened to be in harbour, and escaped to Aden. Commenting on the incident in a letter to his fiancee, Dr Kirk wrote, ‘[Captain] Pasley has taken off poor Bibi Salme in his ship. She’d have been killed, I think, sooner or later, had she remained... I am told she got into the cutter, taking down all her boxes of dollars safely and springing into the boat, although it was manned by infidels. Her two servants, who knew nothing of the affair, screamed, howled, and roared, as women will do; but a bluejacket covered the mouth of one and lifted her nolens volens, to follow her mistress. The other unluckily got clear away, bellowing up the street ...’

Sayyid Majid wrote a letter of protest to the British Consul, but readily accepted Seward’s assurance that Captain Pasley had not informed him of his intentions. It was only a formal protest sent out of deference to public opinion, for the Sultan was privately relieved that he would not be obliged to act against a favourite sister to avenge the tarnished honour of their family.

Salme spent the next nine months in Aden waiting for Heinrich Ruete to wind up his affairs in Zanzibar and join her. She stayed with a Spanish couple named Mass whom she had known in Zanzibar; Bonaventura Mass had been involved in the slave trade and had had to leave Zanzibar in a hurry. In November of that year the Political Resident in Aden reported: ‘Every effort has been made to induce the Bibi Suleyma [Salme] to quit her present quarters and adopt a more secluded life. But I regret without avail: indeed I have endeavoured to work upon the lady’s feelings through the most respectable Arab families residing in Aden (that of the Aidroos and others) and have offered her a private apartment and establishment, but the Bibi seems determined to adhere to the step she has taken and to renounce her former life entirely and become Europeanised. To use her own words, she cannot, she says, after wearing the dress of Europeans revert to Arab dress, nor will she certainly for the present quit Mr Mass’ house.

About two months before she sailed for Hamburg, Salme attended a public concert in Aden whose organiser had sent her a complimentary programme printed on silk with a covering letter addressed to ‘Her Royal Highness the Princess of Zanzibar’. She took these with her to Hamburg and kept them until her death (as she did a miniature Qur’an brought from Zanzibar) as a memento of the life which she had left behind.

Christ Church, where Salme was baptised and married in her adopted name of Emily, had been built with funds raised by public subscription and was consecrated in 1862. One of the first subscribers had been Queen Victoria whose eldest daughter, the future Empress of Germany, was later to befriend Salme in Europe. Witnesses to the marriage service on 30 May 1867 were the British Political Resident in Aden, Colonel W L. Merewether, and Colonel (later Sir) Robert Playfair, a former Assistant Resident in Aden, who served as Consul in Zanzibar 1862-67. The latter’s brother, Sir Lyon (later Lord) Playfair, Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, showed Salme great kindness during her first visit to London in 1875; although she was not personally known to him, he and his wife insisted on accommodating her and did all they could to enlist official and public sympathy for her cause.

During their three years of domestic happiness in Hamburg before Heinrich Ruete’s untimely death in a tram accident, Salme did her utmost to adapt herself to her very changed surroundings. In Zanzibar she had maintained a large household of domestic slaves and other attendants, and had been treated with all the deference due to a member of the ruling family. But being married to a businessman in the vast city of Hamburg meant a complete and shattering break with the past. She was sustained in her early widowhood at the age of twenty-six, and through financial and other tribulations, by her strength of character and her devotion to her three children (two daughters having been born to her in Hamburg). When she reached Aden in late August 1866, she had donned European attire but to the very end of her life she retained and treasured an Arab dress which she had been wearing at the time of her flight from Zanzibar.

Salme never accepted the legal consequences under Islamic law of her apostasy, namely the automatic forfeiture of all rights to property and inheritance in Zanzibar; and for much of her life she campaigned directly and through intermediaries, in many different quarters, for the restitution of these ‘rights’. In 1875 she went to England in the hope of achieving a reconciliation with Sultan Barghash (who had succeeded Sayyid Majid in 1870) during his state visit to Britain that year; but, despite pressure from Salme’s many influential friends and sympathisers, including members of the British Royal Family, Barghash continued to refuse to discuss her case or to have any contact with her.

German ambitions to seize control of the Zanzibar mainland in ‘the scramble for Africa’ made Bismarck receptive to Salme’s requests for German support. Salme’s son, Rudolph Said-Ruete, was being educated at the expense of Emperor Wilhelm 1, and the possibility of installing a German-born Sultan in Zanzibar, if Sultan Barghash refused to yield to German demands, seemed well worth considering. Salme pressed Bismarck to arrange for her to return to Zanzibar under German protection and finally, after much delay, she and her three children boarded a German naval vessel, the Adler at Port Said in July 1885. They spent five days in Aden at the Hotel de L’Europe during the voyage. The Adler reached Zanzibar on 3 August but did not drop anchor until the arrival of five German men-of-war a few days later. Salme and her children spent ten days on shore, but Sultan Barghash refused to acknowledge her existence. Meanwhile, German negotiations to establish a protectorate over the Zanzibar mainland (Tanganyika) were going well, and Salme’s presence was now seen as a potential embarrassment to German interests. She was prevailed upon to return to Europe and to seek compensation in lieu of her claims (which she personally assessed at £20,000). Despite British and German representations following her departure, the Sultan refused to offer more than a token sum of 6,000 rupees (£500) which Salme declined to accept. Barghash died in March 1888 and Salme decided to return once more to Zanzibar to make a personal appeal to his successor, Sayyid Khalifa bin Sa’id. Accompanied by a daughter, she arrived at Zanzibar in May, staying at the German Hospital. When her letters to Khalifa elicited no reply, she contacted Colonel Euan Smith who had replaced Kirk as Consul-General. Smith recorded:

‘Madame Ruete, who was dressed in mourning, and in the height of European fashion, spoke in broken, but very intelligible English ... she informed me that she had spent and risked almost everything in coming to Zanzibar, in the hope of obtaining something from His Highness … Her chief desire was to be reconciled with the Arab members of her family, with the ladies of which she was in constant and daily correspondence. They were all willing to receive her, and she would like to remain with her family in Zanzibar (though, in reply to a query of mine … she stated that nothing would ever induce her to enter a harem again). Madame Ruete finished by asking whether she could be received as an English subject under the protection of Her Majesty’s Agent and Consul-General’.

On 4 October 1888, Salme sailed away from the land of her birth for the last time and empty-handed. Her remaining years were spent in restless wandering and for a time she lived in Beirut. In 1890 she was back in London trying to enlist the support of English friends. On this occasion she stayed with the widow of General Rigby (who had served in Zanzibar and had, together with his young wife, visited Heinrich and Emily Ruete in Hamburg). Recalling Salme’s visit in 1890, Rigby’s daughter wrote, ‘I remember her well — a devoted mother before everything, charming, pretty, worn, fragile, pathetic, always an exile in spirit, always a princess in the gentle dignity with which she bore herself’.

The total collapse of the mark after the first world war left Saline seriously impoverished. By then she was in her seventies and the sole survivor of her father’s many children. News of her plight, and the death of the generation which had known her in Zanzibar, finally led Sultan Khalifa bin Harub to grant her in 1922 a (modest) civil list pension. She lived little more than a year to enjoy this before her death at Jena in February 1924. In 1929 a biography of her renowned father was published in London, written by her son, Rudolph Said-Ruete, with a foreword by Sir Percy Cox who had served as Consul in Muscat at the turn of the century. Rudolph dedicated the book to the memory of his mother who had, as he put it, ‘fulfilled a great mission by a life that proved to the West the noble qualities of the Womanhood of the East’.

Salme’s own book, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess, was first published in German in 1886. English editions issued in London and New York in 1888, and a French translation followed in 1905. In his introduction to the 1980 English reprint, Dr G. S. P Freeman-Grenville described the work as unique in the literature of the Arabs: ‘After nearly a century this book retains all its charm and freshness … Salme was the first Arab woman to write an autobiography, even if she wrote it in German … no other Arab princess had ever given an account of her youth, or the court where she was brought up … In our times the emancipation of women is commonplace. In nineteenth century Europe it was a rarity. Among Muslims it was all but unthinkable. In her emancipation she was ahead of her time.’


By John Shipman. This article was published in the British Yemeni Society's journal, 2000

You will often see Salme spelt as Saline or Salama. When her story and memoirs were translated or recounted in European languages, her name might have been adapted or altered to suit the phonetics or naming conventions familiar to Western audiences.

Further information about the cultural activities of the Institute may be obtained from Mr Said el-Gheithy, Princess Salme Institute, 38 King Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 8J5 (Tel/Fax: 020 7240 0199).