Nechama’s note: This edited extract originally appeared in my history of Cape Town, The Cape Town Book (Struik). As I explain, below, the text was written by a history student named Andrew Alexander who tragically passed away after a motorbike accident several years ago. I received permission from the university to include some of his truly incredible work as part of my book. When we were editing the book and working furiously to reduce my original 130,000 words of text to a more manageable 90,000 or so, the story of the Meermin was more often than not placed on the cutting block… but I fought to keep it in because it is one of the most important pieces of our history I can think of. I am posting the text in its entirety online, to mark the 252nd anniversary of the bravery of these freedom fighters.
The Mutiny on the Meermin
By Andrew Alexander
This account is based on the unpublished dissertation written by the late Andrew Alexander, titled ‘The Mutiny on the Meermin’. As the logbook of the Meermin was lost, Alexander painstakingly recreated the events on board the ship through other primary sources including the letters of the Landdrost, and transcripts of the court cases.
On 20 January 1766 the Meermin, a small, probably two-masted VOC hoeker adapted and rigged for slaving expeditions, left Madagascar, bound for the Cape with a cargo of 140 slaves.
A short while into the voyage the ship’s captain, Gerrit Muller, became unwell. As the slaves had also fallen prey to some illness, Muller authorised their unchaining and allowed them to walk around on deck, although this was strictly against regulations.
Muller’s ‘blunder’ was compounded by the actions of his slave buyer, Johan Crause, who had purchased weapons in Madagascar and decided they required some maintenance. Crause reckoned those best qualified to clean Madagascan weapons would be those who hailed from Madagascar – the slaves.
On Tuesday 18 February Crause, with Muller’s approval, had the weapons brought up on deck. The weapons were, in the main, Madagascan assegais. Five slaves were assigned to clean them under supervision.
Crause was among the first to be killed, dropped with an assegai after emerging to attempt to talk with the now-armed slaves. Sailors who tried to secrete themselves in the rigging were captured and stabbed to death. Three were hurled overboard. One, Rijk Meyer, who was able to swim, managed to grab on to a rope dangling from the a window of the gunroom or Constapelskamer, where the few survivors had managed to barricade themselves, and was pulled to rejoin his fellows.
There were approximately 30 crew in the Constapelskamer, and they were forced to subsist on raw bacon and potatoes and a cask of arak. After a failed attempt to gain food supplies they began to debate their options.
A small, armed group tried to leave the Constapelskamer, shooting any slave in sight. But the slaves fought back, and three more men lost their lives.
Undeterred, the crew hit upon an even more outrageous plan, to ignite some gunpowder and terrify the mutinous slaves into submission. This plan met with a similarly dismal end, literally blowing up in the face of the chief mate, Daniel Gulik.
With Muller and Gulik both injured the assistant, Olof Leij, assumed command. Leij spoke a smattering of Malagasy, which he had picked up as a slave procurer, and proceeded with the unenviable task of negotiating for his and his compatriots’ lives.
In return for the security of the crew, the slaves – who possessed little in the way of seafaring or navigational skills, and were incapable of locating their position within the wide expanse of the ocean – wanted only to be returned to Madagascar.
Muller hit upon an opportunity for deceit. He determined that, once the sailors had regained control of the vessel, they would set a course not for Madagascar but to take them to a place of refuge.
Hoping to reach Table Bay or False Bay, land was sighted on the 25th of February, and the ship was forced to anchor off Cape Agulhas. The sailors reinforced the notion that this was the coast of Madagascar.
The mooring of a ship with no flag had, in the meantime, alerted those on land. A commando of burghers was assigned to patrol the beach. Their vigilance was rewarded when a large number of slaves came ashore in two light landing vessels. A number of the slaves were killed in the encounter; the remainder were captured.
The Meermin was anchored approximately an hour off shore – too far away for those on board to have seen the skirmish on land. It was impossible, however, for the burghers to launch any kind of naval offensive as the landing vessels had both been damaged when they came ashore, and there were no other suitable boats in the vicinity. The local Landdrost, Johannes Le Sueur, quickly sent for carpenters, and two pilots.
The carpenters arrived on the 6th of March. While they were inspecting the boats, a bottle was discovered containing a letter signed by the Meermin crew. This find was soon accompanied by the discovery of a second bottle – containing a letter from Olof Leij. Both letters outlined a plan of action that, the sailors hoped, would help them escape, requesting that three beacon fires be lit. This, they explained, would convince the slaves to bring the Meermin closer to shore.
The urgency of the situation decided Le Sueur’s hand. Early in the morning of 7 March, fires were lit where they would be easily visible. Shortly after, the Meermin was indeed set towards the beach and sailed to a position estimated to be a musket shot from the shore. The ship dropped anchor and a sailor swam to shore, sent ahead by the slaves. The sailor explained he had made a secret agreement with the crew that, should he discover friends on shore, he would provide a signal to indicate rescue was near.
Both groups aboard the Meermin, the slaves and the crew, hoped that their compatriots were at hand; and yet while one sense of expectancy was based on an accurate knowledge of circumstances, the other was founded on a misguided fantasy that had been fuelled both by deceit and by a devastating lack of formal knowledge.
The signal was given, upon which a canoe was lowered from the Meermin. In the canoe were six mutineers and one sailor, who rowed towards a high sand dune where, coincidentally, a commando had been posted. A fierce battle ensued, resulting in death of a slave later identified as the leader of the mutiny; his name was never recorded.
Until that moment, the slaves still on board must have held the belief that they had arrived at their own country. Now the extent to which they had been deceived and double-crossed became apparent. Their first response was attack the crew. From the shore, Le Sueur could hear the sounds of battle and occasional gunfire.
It had also become apparent that the Meermin was stranded on a sandbank and was no longer capable of movement. The slaves, able to see the rallying commandos on land, eventually realised their bid for freedom was at an end and surrendered.
The next task confronting Le Sueur was to somehow transport the slaves to shore. The landing boats were still damaged, and the canoes were far too small for such a large congregation of people.
As a compromise, a rope was anchored to the shore and, at low tide, volunteers swam out to the ship where they passed the rope to the crew. One by one the slaves were helped into the water, where the burghers assisted them – carrying them, when slaves were unable to swim – drawing themselves back to shore along the line of the rope. The children aboard were carried on the burghers’ backs. 53 slaves were recovered.
By 12 March, the slaves had all been sent back to Cape Town by wagon.
They were not charged with any wrongdoing; and, with the exception of two suspected leaders named Massavana and Koesaaij, were absorbed into the Company slave population.
Massavana and Koesaaij – the only names of any of the Meermin slaves to have been recorded – were despatched to Robben Island. Neither man could be persuaded to talk about what had happened aboard the ship. Both men died on the island, shedding little light on one of the most significant events of eighteenth century South African history.
Muller and Gulik were tried for negligence and demoted. Muller was forbidden from serving in the VOC for the remainder of his life and was banned from the Cape.
After part of the ship’s contents had been salvaged, the hulk of the Meermin was left to break apart on the sandbank where it stranded, near present-day Struisbaai. Several attempts have been made to locate the remains of the wreck, but the Meermin has not yet been found.
Dan Sleigh and Piet Westra’s Die Aanslag op die Slaweskip Meermin 1766 (available in English as The Taking of the Slaver Meermin; Africana Publishers) gives a richly detailed account of the mutiny on the Meermin – including an introduction to VOC Cape Town and the Madagascan slave trade – and carefully assesses the challenges presented by the fragmentary original source material, making for an excellent discussion around the reconstruction of history.