Emily Ruete was born 30 August 1844 as Salama bint Said1 as the youngest daughter of Sayyid Said bin Sultan Al-Busaid, Sultan of Zanzibar and Oman and Jilfidan, a concubine. She was born in the Bet il Mtoni palace, five miles from the city of Zanzibar, and she would spend the first seven years of her life there. Her father lived in the wing closest to the sea with his principal wife. He spent four days a week there, and the remaining days were spent in the city palace of Bet il Sahel. At the time of her birth, her father was 53 years old, and she only remembered him with his snow-white beard. His nickname for her was “old woman” as she was fond of cold milk soup, which was usually eaten by old and toothless people.
Her mother Jilfidan was a Circassian who had been taken from her home. Her father had been a farmer, and she was known to have had a little brother and sister. When Jilfidan was taken, her parents were killed, and the children were taken and eventually separated. Jilfidan never saw either of her siblings again. Jilfidan was still only about seven or eight years old when she was taken to the Sultan. She was brought up with daughters of the Sultan her own age. She was educated with them and learned to read. She had at least one other daughter beside Emily, who tragically died very young.
Emily grew up with around 35 siblings, though as one of the youngest, some of them already had children of their own by the time she was born. In her memoirs, she estimated she may have had up to 100 siblings.2 When her brother Madjid came of age, he asked her and her mother to come and live with him in his new household at Bet il Watoro, close to the city palace, and with the consent of the Sultan, they moved in with him. Emily was mostly glad to be removed from a particularly harsh teacher. Upon arrival, she found it to be small, and she was unhappy at first. She found some happiness there when she learned that her brother kept all kinds of animals, including white rabbits. She also became closer to her brother, and she often accompanied him. She eventually came to own some animals of her own, such a fighting cocks. Madjid also taught her fencing and shooting. She later wrote in her memoirs, “In fact, he made quite an amazon of me, greatly to the distress of my dear mother, who declined to learn anything about fencing and shooting.”3 A eunuch named Mesrur helped her improve her horsemanship. Soon Emily was dividing her time between the city palace and her brother’s household as her father wanted her to continue her lessons. The new teacher was a woman, and Emily became quite close to her. For two years, life passed peacefully.
After Madjid married his third wife there was some in-house fighting that soon became unbearably to Jilfidan. She and Emily moved to Bet il Tani, which was connected to the city palace by a suspension bridge, where Madjid still visited them regularly. Here, Emily learned to write in secret, as women were not allowed to write. On 19 October 1856, Emily’s father died, and his realm was divided among several of his sons. Madjid became the new Sultan of Zanzibar, and the family was plunged into mourning. Her father’s wives and concubines had to submit to religious mourning for four months in a dark room. Around this time, Emily was declared of age and granted her inheritance. She was still only 12 years old, quite young to be declared of age. For now, Madjid would care for the properties left to her and Emily remained at Bet il Tani with her mother.
Just three years later, Emily watched in horror as her mother too was taken from her – probably by cholera. She wrote in her memoirs, “For two days longer she withstood its attacks, then she was taken from me for ever. My grief was boundless, and without heeding the warnings of my friends, who were afraid I might catch the disease, I clung frantically to the dear body. My only desire was to leave this world together with my mother, but God willed that I should be spared, and to His will, I at last found the strength to resign myself.” She was barely 15 years old.4 She went to live with her sister Chole, who then came into conflict with Madjid and another brother of theirs named Barghash and Emily was caught in between. Barghash had failed to usurp her father’s power, and now he rebelled against Madjid. With her ability to write, she was able to act as a secretary for Barghash as her sister Chole convinced her. The rebellion was eventually ended in Madjid’s favour, and Emily retreated to Kisimbani, one of the plantations she had inherited. She eventually made peace with Madjid who refused to publicly humiliate any woman.