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Dispatches: Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar

By Geoff Wisner


In its no-frills way, Dover Publications has been performing a valuable service: returning to print 19th-century books that few other presses would take a chance on, and doing it affordably.

Without Dover, I would have had a tougher time finding some of the classics of African exploration, like Henry M. Stanley's How I Found Livingstone and Sir Richard Burton's First Footsteps in East Africa, describing his adventures in what is now Somalia. (I am hoping that Dover will eventually bring out Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa by the forgotten American explorer Paul du Chaillu, allegedly the first non-African to see gorillas in the wild.)

The latest addition to Dover's Africa list is Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar by Emily Ruete. Said to be the first biography ever written about an Arab woman, the book first appeared in German in 1886. It was translated into English by Lionel Strachey for the 1907 edition that Dover has reproduced.

Emily Ruete was the real thing: a princess born into the royal family of Zanzibar in 1842, at a time when one kingdom joined the island with the territory of Muscat on the Arabian peninsula. Her father was the sultan, Seyyid Saïd, her mother was a Circassian concubine, and her original name was Salamah bint Saïd.

Salamah was a young woman who combined a spirit of independence with rather poor judgment. She learned to read, write, and defend herself, and she insisted on unusual freedom of movement. But her ill-considered decision to support a palace coup against a popular sultan who was her own brother, led her to exile from the island.

Along with remembrances of childhood (which include being accidentally shot with an arrow by ímy lively young brother Hamdanë) Salamah describes the daily life of the sultan and his household in satisfying detail, from the riding lessons given by the palace eunuchs to the circular building where the sultan would drink coffee and survey his domain through a telescope.

As with other Dover titles from the past, part of the experience of reading this book is seeing the pages as they originally appeared in type set by hand. Another part is swallowing the occasional dose of undiluted racism. The banyans or East Indian merchants, Salamah tells us, are íunsurpassed at cunning, deception, and trickery … wretched Hindu blacklegs, whose word counts for nothing, and who are miserable cowards into the bargain.ë The abolition of slavery on Zanzibar meant ía hard time for the owners, who complained bitterly…. Besides, our island now enjoyed the advantage of being enriched by the presence of a few thousand loafers, tramps, and thieves.ë

Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa, which discusses books from every African country. He also blogs at

Published Jun 18, 2009   Copyright 2009 Geoff Wisner

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