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Salme/Ruete, a simultaneously colonial and colonized subject



Tania Mancheno,

Emily Ruete, née Sayyida Salme bint Said ibn Sultan, pictured in traditional Omani dress. The picture was presumably taken in 1886 to appear in her autobiography, Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar. CC BY 4.0, Photo: Leiden University Libraries

A square in a residential neighbourhood in Hamburg was named after Emily Ruete in 2019. The decision was initially made in the newly constructed Finkenau district in response to the preponderance of streets named after men (Grüne Hamburg-Nord 2019):  in 2011, only 310 of Hamburg’s more than 8,800 streets — about twelve percent — were named after women or female-presenting imaginary characters (Bake 2011, 1–2). A year and a half later, the naming of the square came up for debate. A number of civil society actors justifiably criticized Ruete’s unexamined privilege, dismissal of concerns about slavery, and anti-Black racism (Arndt et al. 2018). All of these traits were evident in her works, namely Memoiren einer arabischen Prinzessin (published in English as Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar), first issued in German in 1886, and Briefe nach der Heimat (Letters to the Homeland), a collection that was only published in 1999.

Tania Mancheno is a lecturer in political geography and critical criminology at Universität Hamburg. She received her doctorate in 2019 with a dissertation titled Multiculturalism and the Politics of Translation (forthcoming 2022). Since 2014, Mancheno has organized decolonial walking tours in Hamburg and has a scholarly affiliation with the research centre “Hamburgs (post-)koloniales Erbe/Hamburg und die frühe Globalisierung”. Her edited volume Dekoloniale Perspektiven. Widerständige nicht-weiße Erinnerungskultur (VSA, 2022) will be published this year.

Translated for Gegensatz Translation Collective by Joseph Keady and Marty Hiatt.

The local debate, which has since been taken up internationally (see, e.g.: Iken 2020; Neumann 2020; Schmoock 2022), can be encapsulated in the following question: is Emily Ruete, born Sayyida Salme bint Said ibn Sultan, Princess of Oman and Zanzibar, a woman worthy of remembrance, or should her name be banished from the public sphere? The controversy exposes the political nature of memory culture and seeks a moral standard for public memory of a person who was privileged and experienced racism at the same time.

The present essay seeks to analyze the intersection (Kelly 2019, 11) of gender, class, and race in Salme/Ruete’s biography. It is precisely that intersection that makes this cosmopolitan woman an ambivalent historical figure who occupied a multiplicity of social positions. She was a foreign princess of the Omani Empire who became a world-famous author and African-German slave owner. Starting from these geographical and political junctions, the diasporic dimensions of her life and work will be reconstructed in order to formulate theoretical suggestions for a memory culture that seeks to create informed, inclusive, and intersectional memory landscapes.

Salme/Ruete: Two Biographies, One Woman

Few ninteenth-century German women of colour have had their lives documented first-hand to the same extent as Salme/Ruete (1844–1924). Salme and Ruete are the names of a self-aware, intelligent, decisive woman who lived within a strictly regulated palace together with her mother Jilfidian, a Circassian slave and one of the wives of the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar. She grew up privileged within a harem of seventy other young and adult women. She also overcame patriarchal and sexist barriers by teaching herself to read and write at a time when education for women in Zanzibar, as in Germany, was socially condemned or even prohibited (Vielreicher 2020). The Princess of Zanzibar and resident of Hamburg applied her talents to internal palace proceedings so that she and an aide, whose identity is still unknown, could plan her secret migration with accompanying servant women (ibid.). Although she gained social mobility, her conversion can also be understood as a strategy for avoiding discrimination against Muslims (Gelvin/Green 2014, 2). Her adopted religion amounted to a transformation of her identity, albeit one that could never be completed, as she later lamented.

In 1866, she fled to Hamburg, the birthplace of her husband Rudolph Heinrich Ruete, who worked for Hansing & Co. and was active in the colonial shell money trade. Despite the privileges Europeans enjoyed in Zanzibar as well as her own privileges, her relationship with a Christian man was scandalous in a Muslim society (Ruete 1886, Vol. 2, 141–142). She converted and was baptized en route to Germany (Velde/Vrolijk 2018). She acquired German citizenship in 1872 and lived in Ruete’s villa in Hamburg until that year (Kornes 2021).

The three-month journey in 1866 was traumatic for Salme/Ruete, as she lost her first child en route. The Ruetes had three subsequent children, Antonie, Rudolph, and Rosalie, however Rudolph Ruete, Sr, died three years after their arrival and shortly after the birth of their youngest child. Salme/Ruete’s life as a widow became more difficult as a privileged, yet exoticized immigrant. Hamburg society had previously shown a growing interest in her, but without her husband, she was shunned (Ruete 1999, 24). In response to her alienation (Ruete 1886, Vol. 2, 144–145), she moved to Dresden, Cologne, Rudolstadt, and Berlin. In 1888, she emigrated to Jaffa and Jerusalem and lived in Beirut from 1892 to 1914. She later returned to Germany and died in Jena with her German children at her side; she was buried in the Ruete family tomb in Ohlsdorf Cemetery in Hamburg. Today, she is commemorated in several of these cities.

The memorial sites dedicated to Salme/Ruete and her migration experience go beyond any nation(ality), linking Asia, Africa, and Europe. A few years ago, the Princess Salme Museum opened in Hurumzi on Zanzibar.[1] There, she is honoured as a local princess and world-famous author. In Hamburg, a few metres from the family tomb, there is a “memorial” that was established in 2000 by the women’s association Garten der Frauen (Garden of Women).[2] A commemorative stone was erected there for Salme/Ruete during the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All in 2007. While inscriptions for other women mention titles or professional designations, hers is simply the word “Immigrant.” Tourists from other countries, who visit Salme/Ruete’s grave in a kind of pilgrimage to commemorate the person she was, participate in the garden’s living culture of remembrance.

At the same time, her Memoirs, which became an international bestseller, are situated between two worlds: on account of that publication, Salme/Ruete is regarded as a pioneer in Arab (Reynolds 2001, 8) as well as East African literature (Mohamud 2019). English translations of this autobiography were published in 1989, 1998, 2007, and most recently in 2013.

In her essay on Salme/Ruete, Katherine Maxwell explains that the author’s autobiography and letters contributed to an exchange of knowledge between Zanzibar and Germany (Maxwell 2015, 37). As Salme/Ruete herself wrote, “I only want … to attempt to enable the European reader to properly understand the more important views and mores of the Orient” (Ruete 1886, Vol. 1, 179). By circulating knowledge, she challenged the colonial distinction between a supposedly dangerous Orient and a civilized West; she attempted to bridge the violent distinction between “the West and the Rest” (Hall 1994, 179). Using her knowledge of Arabic and Kiswahili, she participated in debates about colonialism with Orientalists and colonial governors that were otherwise the exclusive domain of men at the time.

With respect to the mobility of women from the global south in the nineteenth century, the “woman with multiple identities” (Maxwell 2015, 37) was an exception. Salme/Ruete is considered a progenitor of early globalization in that she tried to overcome incompatibilities between civilizations. Her Memoirs (Ruete 1886, Vol. 1, 179) include the following statement: “I have not yet managed to completely stamp out the skewed and incorrect views that define the position in Europe and particularly in Germany of an Arab woman relative to her husband.”

Literary and cultural scholar Firat Oruc describes Salme/Ruete as a native and foreigner to Europe and Africa who was engaged in a “linguistic, cultural, religious, and material” translation. According to Oruc, she even embodied a translation (Oruc 2019: 1), insofar as she made the distinct cultural contexts that she inhabited accessible to an intergenerational readership. Given that there is no sufficient political or discursive boundary between feminism and racism (Lennox 1995, 136), Salme/Ruete can simultaneously be characterized as a feminist and a racist — which is to say, as a person who was affected by racism and sexism and who simultaneously benefited from racism — without any contradiction. This is an indication of the complexity of non-white women’s roles during Germany’s colonial era.

The Initial Betrayal of a Cultural Translator

Salme/Ruete’s stories from the feminized and veiled harem are unique and, to some extent, fantastical. Even in the nineteenth century, her writings were described as a “fairytale from A Thousand and One Nights made real” (Kersten 1869, xvi). She shared “details about everyday life in a [highly privileged, –TM] Arab household”, but she explains that her descriptions of “the life of the Orientals” are not free of European prejudice (Ruete 1886, Vol. 1, 63).

To this day, worldwide interest in Salme/Ruete is marked by Eurocentric fantasies (Roy 2015, 17). A colonial desire for cultural difference is evident in the novels that her life inspired, including Sansibar Blues oder wie ich Livingstone fand (Zanzibar Blues, or How I Found Livingstone, 2008) by Hans Christoph Buch, Sterne über Sansibar (Stars over Zanzibar, 2010) by Nicole C. Vosseler, From Sansibar with Love: Meine unmögliche Affäre in Afrika (From Zanzibar with Love: My Impossible Affair in Africa, 2015) by Andrea Tapper and Ahmed Ally as well as the documentary film Die Prinzessin von Sansibar (The Princess of Zanzibar, 2007) by Tink Diaz. The influential literary theorist and co-founder of postcolonial studies Edward Said labelled this epistemic outlook Orientalism (Said 2012, 12).

Salme/Ruete was also exoticized during her own lifetime. In her Memoirs and Letters, she documented various experiences of discrimination. She described her time in Hamburg as “ill-fated” and, while she wrote that she encountered hospitality in other German cities, she called herself “just a stranger in Germany” (Ruete 1886, Vol. 2, 144–145, 187). She repeatedly expressed her frustration with German society, which refused to acknowledge her rights and her heritage (Maxwell 2015, 42). Nonetheless, Salme/Ruete made it clear that her indignation about her social exclusion was an outgrowth of her understanding of class.

As the proclaimed daughter of the sultan (bint Sultan), Salme/Ruete benefited from the traffic in human beings and from slave labour on plantations, which was the basis of the sultan’s wealth before the island was occupied by German troops in 1888 (Sheriff 1987). She grew up in a Muslim empire that tolerated various kinds of enslavement and, in contrast to the European monopoly on slavery, also abducted white people (Lohdi 1973, 5). The forced migration of women to Zanzibar from the Karachay-Cherkessia region at that time left a mark on Salme/Ruete’s biography, yet she was not on the receiving end of such exploitation.

Salme/Ruete was uncritical of her status, which she benefited from directly. Instead, she repeatedly made inhumane and repulsive statements about Black Africans. In the chapters of her Memoirs titled “On a Plantation” (Vol. 1) and “Slavery” (Vol. 2), she described the exploitation of people who were coerced, physically punished, and subjected to the most repugnant living conditions as a matter of course and opposed the abolition of slavery.

Salme/Ruete reproduced anti-Black racism on both an individual and a social level. Like many people in Hamburg at the time, she had a colonial and classist worldview. For example, she did not reflect on the misanthropic field of “race science”,which was taught in German universities and propagated in the colonies during her lifetime (El-Tayeb 2020; Vaagt 2021). As citizens of that port city, the Ruetes also benefited from trade with Zanzibar, which constituted 34 percent of Hamburg’s imports between 1864 and 1865 (Maxwell 2015, 40).

However, it is also worth mentioning that she criticized a morally driven rejection of slavery in her Memoirs. According to Salme/Reute, a humanistic discourse requires a social project of Ent-Sklavung (dis-enslavement). She wrote about the need to envision the integration of all classes as a means to ensure labour without exploitation (Ruete 1886, Vol. 2, 79). She also denounced the illegal continuation of enslavement on Zanzibar by Europeans.

Whether or not the public would have read her books then (or would read them today) if Salme/Ruete had distanced herself from anti-Black racism is open to debate. In my reading, the way it is formulated in her writing illustrates above all an insistence on belonging to the white, Christian elite, which benefited tremendously from the slave economy. She acted as a cultural translator insofar as she wrote from a woman-centred perspective for European readers in order to expose the colonial perception of Zanzibar through their aristocratic gaze. In her Memoirs, she reveals her motivation to contrast European Orientalism with her own description, through which she endeavoured to facilitate communication — albeit of an elite kind — between global regions (Ruete 1886, Vol. 1, 180). And that position is extremely political.

Ambivalent Identities: Colonial Actors Condemned to Betrayal?

During the German-Tanzanian colonial era, Salme/Ruete occupied an ambivalent position that she described as follows: “a bad Christian and a bit more than half German!” (Ruete 1886, Vol. 2, 166). Her migrations added to her other roles as princess, cosmopolitan and outsider, author, mother, anti-Black racist, and — as a subject determining her own rights — feminist. In international colonial relations (today’s North-South relations) and within the racialized Black-white hierarchy, her position was ambivalent.

According to philosopher and co-founder of postcolonial theory Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, indigenous women are thought of as traitorous, because historically they have done most of the work of mediating between colonial agents and colonized people (Spivak 2009, 19). In the history of early European colonialism, the traitor role is embodied by La Malinche. Similar to Salme/Ruete, the woman who was probably given the name Malintzin at birth was a non-white woman from the global South (Mexico) who was enslaved by a hostile community and later married the brutal colonialist Cortéz. Today, she is uncritically remembered as his translator and therefore as a traitor to Mexico (Lanyon 1999). Anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon situates colonialized women — particularly Muslim women — in the role of translator (Fanon 1965). He describes Algerian women’s strategy of dressing to pass through French colonial soldiers’ checkpoints, which the colonial power condemned as treachery (Fanon 1965, 44–45).

A similar verdict on feminized identities in colonial contexts turns up in Salme/Ruete’s biography: because she acted as a cultural translator in the colonial empire, the theme of betrayal followed her through her life and after her death. Salme/Ruete was neither a participant in the anti-colonial resistance nor did she enjoy the privileges that were afforded white women in the colonies. Because of her forced migration from her birthplace and later from a former German colony, she is regarded as both a “migrantized” woman and a colonial agent. She suffered and benefited from colonialism at the same time.

Salme/Ruete was “unfaithful” to the principles of Zanzibari society insofar as she taught herself to read and write and had children with a white German. Her conversion was regarded as a betrayal of Islam. At the same time, Christians mistrusted her due to her convert status. She described herself as a “renegade” (Ruete 1886, Vol. 2, 81). Moreover, she was humiliated by the authorities. On the one hand, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck exploited her permit to travel to German East Africa in 1885 to ensure Germany’s colonial interests (Neumann 2020). On the other hand, officials boycotted her efforts to go to London to meet her brother, who had been named sultan. Recalling that time, she described how the function of national borders goes beyond checking passports and even inheres in the bodies of people of colour in Europe. In her own words, “Didn’t the English government know that I am a German citizen? … and have I not so meticulously fulfilled my promise as though my name were Mrs. Brown?  … When I was in a position to approach my brother, I was not German, but rather the sister of the sultan and a potential threat to English interests” (Ruete 1886, Vol. 2: 154–155). Given that recognition of her citizenship was also still being obstructed in Germany, she left the country.

The contested memory culture around Salme/Ruete treats the naming of the square as an immoral act that must be redressed immediately. In that context, the theme of betrayal is again at play: her identity is reduced to one aspect. She is “exotic”, an “immigrant”, or a “slave owner”. In the process, the selective appropriation of her history — something she lamented in her writing — continues. But instead of branding her as “half German” or as a persona worthy of memorializing, she can be remembered as a woman who argued against anti-Muslim racism, yet supported German colonialism and slavery. She could be remembered as a non-white author from Hamburg who did not distance herself from the dehumanization of Black people. A feminist memory culture should not equate Salme/Ruete’s role as a cultural translator with that of a traitor to humanism.

Salme/Ruete, who described her break with her homeland as a necessary part of her integration when she wrote in the foreword of her Memoirs that her children “knew nothing until then of my origins other than that I was Arab and came from Zanzibar (Ruete 1886, Vol. 1), is an extraordinary Hamburgian who overcame some patriarchal boundaries while emphasizing others. She described, embodied, and reproduced racism. But her writings are also historical sources regarding German colonialism and a testament to nineteenth-century racism. She reported on the difficulty, even impossibility of integrating into German society. Her experiences of discrimination, which can be ascribed to her origins and religion, as well as her social descent tell a long story about racism in Germany: neither changing her name nor religious and cultural conversion were sufficient. Despite her language skills and the financial and intellectual contributions she made, she was not treated as someone who belonged to the country.

In her chapter on the “Position of Women in the Orient” (Ruete 1886, Vol. 1), Salme/Ruete described German-Zanzibari colonial relations through the lens of three generations of women in her family. Her insights into a subaltern and privileged, women-centred historiography are rare for their time (and even for today). A critical memory culture could emphasize these aspects of her biography while nonetheless remembering the fact that her writings are a source of global anti-Black racism.

None of the existing memorials in Hamburg are able to offer a reflective recognition of this ambivalent figure of German colonialism. Nonetheless, renaming the square could create the impression that the number of women worthy of recognition is dramatically small: can we only recognize those authors from the global South and citizens of colour who have a coherent vision and a verified practice of resistance? Renaming the square would banish a woman from a memory landscape dominated by men and the colonial past while raising a moral claim that is incompatible with people’s contradictory actions.

No street names associated with colonialism have been renamed since the Hamburg Senate took its official position on reappraising the city’s colonial heritage in 2014. In fact, new squares within the cityscape have been named after colonial criminals like Amerigo Vespucci. By contrast, Salme/Ruete is at risk of disappearing after only two years. The priorities for improving the memory landscape are difficult to comprehend, although nothing comes as a surprise after the 8-million-euro restoration of the Bismarck rock.

If the square is renamed, the Emily-Ruete-Platz street signs could be placed in the Museum for Hamburg History rather than consigned to the municipal trash heap along with the replaced street signs that have become too dirty for Hamburg’s post-colonial landscape.

This essay is based on a 2019 report the author wrote for the Staatsarchiv Hamburg on the classification of Emily Ruete/Sayyidah Salme in the colonial context of her time. See: Tania Mancheno: “Ambivalente Identitäten - Salme/Ruete, koloniales und kolonialisiertes Subjekt zugleich”, Transparenzportal Hamburg, 9 May 2022, at:


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[2] Garten der Frauen e.V.: “Rede zum 6. Geburtstag des Gartens der Frauen, 8.7.2007” (“Speech on the 6th Birthday of the Garten der Frauen, 8 July 2007”), at: