'Frail Skiffs Tossed on the Ocean of Life': Gender and Romance in Nineteenth Century Zanzibar
The title of my project, Frail Skiffs Tossed on the Ocean of Life, comes from a remarkable autobiography written by the nineteenth century Zanzibari princess Sayyida Salme. Salme was born on August 30, 1844 as the daughter of the Sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyid Said. As a young woman, Salme met a German merchant, Heinrich Ruete, who was her next door neighbor and they developed a romance that resulted in a pregnancy that could not be socially sanctioned. Assisted by the wife of the British Vice-Counsel, Salme fled to Aden in 1866 to await her fiancé. There she was baptized into the Anglican Church and given the Christian name Emily. Emily had three children with Heinrich, Antonie, Said (later Rudolph-Said) and Rosalie. Heinrich and Emily settled in Hamburg, Germany but tragedy soon struck their young household when Heinrich died in a tram accident.
Emily found herself a widow with three children and discovered that much of Heinrich’s estate had either been misappropriated by his business partners or otherwise poorly invested in bonds that provided low returns. For much of her life, Emily moved from town to town in Germany in search of the most economical arrangement for her family’s maintenance and struggled to obtain her inheritance from her brother Barghash who had now ascended to the throne. She used her position as a German subject to enlist the support of the German authorities to make her claim. She traveled to England when Barghash visited in order to represent herself to him in person, but was cunningly prevented from doing so by Sir Bartle Frere who was worried that she might influence Barghash and persuade him not to sign the British treaty on the abolition of the slave trade. Her efforts to obtain her inheritance failed not in small part because Barghash claimed that she had lost all rights to Muslim inheritance when she converted to Christianity. Salme’s struggles with her faith, the meaning of her conversion and her attempts to make sense of her displacement are a central part of her life story. Her ultimately futile visits to Zanzibar in 1885 and 1888 in pursuit of her inheritance and her sense of betrayal by her brother Barghash, and by England and Germany have a tragically poetic quality to them.
Sayyida Salme/ Emily Ruete’s story is a fascinating case study of the culture and politics of transregional identities in a world caught between a Zanzibari monarchy and the arrival of British and German colonialism in the East African Indian Ocean. The characters in the story move between various Indian Ocean ports in Zanzibar, Aden, Oman and Bombay and Salme herself moves from Zanzibar to Germany to England and back to Zanzibar. Her story is at once one of relative subalternity to her more powerful brothers but also one in which she can manipulate the competitive colonial rivalries between the Germans and the British to work to her own benefit. Hers is a tale of cross-racial romance in a world of a racially coded colonialism. It is also a tale of the intimacies of the project of slave emancipation and the encroachment of British colonialism.
Gaurav Desai is a Visiting Fellow at CRASSH, Lent 2013.
He is Associate Professor of English and has a joint appointment in the Program of African and African Diaspora Studies. Author of Subject to Colonialism: African Self-fashioning and the Colonial Library (Duke University Press, 2001) and editor of Teaching the African Novel (MLA, 2009) he has guest edited a volume of essays on Culture and the Law (South Atlantic Quarterly, 100.4, 2001), on Actually Existing Colonialisms (Journal of Contemporary Thought, 24, 2006), on Asian African Literatures (Research in African Literatures, 42.3, 2011), and co-edited a volume of essays on Multi-Ethnic Literatures and the Idea of Social Justice (MELUS, 28.1, Spring 2003). Postcolonialisms: An Anthology of Cultural Theory and Criticism (Rutgers University Press, 2005) which he co-edited with Supriya Nair has become a standard reference and classroom text since its publication. Among Desai's other publications are articles in edited collections and journals such as PMLA, Genders,Representations, Boundary2, Interventions, Research in African Literatures,African Studies Review and Cultural Critique. Recipient of a residential fellowship at the National Humanities Center in 2001, Desai has also been awarded a Rockefeller Foundation award for a residency at the Bellagio Center in Italy and an ACLS Burkhardt Fellowship for his research. In 2004, Desai was made a life member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. He has recently completed a book on narratives of Indian Ocean connections between Africa and India.