Monday, September 11, 2006

The Slave Mutiny on the Meermin

The Meermin was a hoeker class ship of 450 tons, built in 1759 at the Amsterdam Yard for the Amsterdam Chamber of the Dutch East India Company, and used by the Cape authorities as a slaver ship. In1766, a slave mutiny occurred on the Meermin, under the command of Captain Gerrit Christoffel Muller, en route between Madagascar and Cape Town. Over 140 Madagascan slaves revolted against the Dutch East India company (VOC) crew manning the vessel and assumed control of the ship.

On the return trip to the Cape, Muller, who had become ill, had the slaves, many of whom were also ill, released from their shackles. Discipline amongst the crew had broken down with many of them carrying on long drinking sessions. Muller also allowed the slaves on deck for chores and to entertain the Meermin’s celebrating crew. Vigilance was further relaxed when the ship neared the Cape. Foolishly, the First Mate in charge, Crause, even had the slaves clean a range of weapons including a collection of exotic Malagasy weapons.

The slaves seized upon the opportunity, killing many of the crew before most a number of the crew and Captain barricaded themselves below deck or fled into the rigging. Those who had sought refuge amid the sails eventually came down, but were tossed overboard and killed.

With the slaves in control of the deck and the remaining crew marooned below, the situation was a stalemate. The outnumbered crew was sidelined, while the slaves who controlled the deck could not steer the ship. The stalemate continued for two days. The crew tried a number of unsuccessful maneuvers to regain control but later turned to negotiations through one of the female slaves assisting the Second Mate. Negotiations and mutual threats resulted in a deal that the unharmed crew would sail the ship but return the slaves to Madagascar. Seemingly, the crew complied but instead sailed for the Cape. In an attempt to outfox the slaves, the crew sailed one way during the day and another, at a much faster speed, during the night. On the fourth day, the Meermin neared Cape Agulhas. The Second Mate and negotiator, Olaf Leij who had some mastery of Malagasy languages, convinced the slaves that the landmark was part of Madagascar, and anchor was dropped.

To make contact with people on land, some 60 slaves piled aboard two of the ship’s sloops. They would signal those remaining aboard that all was well ashore by lighting three fires. The arrival of the ship and the unusual activity had been seen by Cape farmers who set up an ambush when they realized the shore party was black. Fourteen slaves were killed and the rest captured.

The slaves aboard the Meermin anxiously were waiting for the signals from shore, as was the outnumbered crew. The sailors wrote a few terse messages to the Dutch ashore, put them in bottles in the hope the tide would carry the flasks to their intended location. The messages were found and brought to the local Landdrost, the area’s chief magistrate, who caught the meaning and complied to light the fires, further confusing the slaves on board.

Although the boats did not return to the ship, the slaves themselves agreed that all was well. They cut anchor and assumed that the Meermin could drift towards the shore of what they thought was Madagascar. An advance party was captured by the men of the Landdrost, but that was observed by those aboard. They turned on the remaining crew, which had dreaded this possible turn of events. Those on shore could not assist the Dutch sailors.

In the midst of the fighting, the Meermin ran aground on a sandbank. Olaf Leij was able to convince the slaves that further fighting was futile and promised them safety if they laid down their weapons. They agreed and soon were clamped into irons again. The crew again raised the Dutch flag, signaling an end to the uprising.

The ship was stuck in the sand however. Dispatch boats from the shore managed to rescue all aboard, but the Meermin was lost. For days, the crew and others were able to bring stuff ashore, but the ship was more and more engulfed in the sand and eventually was covered after it was battered by the waves and began to break up.

The 112 remaining slaves eventually were taken to Cape Town to be auctioned. Captain Muller was tried for culpable negligence, found guilty, striped of rank and pay, and discharged from the Company's service. The narrative of the Meermin has been documented several times, with varying degrees of accuracy and completeness. The ship has sometimes been confused with a later vessel, also named the Meermin, which was in operation during the 1780s. For reliable information on this story this BLOG directs anyone that is interested in learning more about the Meermin saga to the following Meermin website

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