This is an extract from a recent Honours thesis by
Andrew Alexander under the auspices of the Department of History at the University of Cape Town. The work is
based on the Historical research commissioned by the Meermin project and gives an accurate account
of what happened in 1766.
During February and March of the year 1766, a Dutch slaving vessel, the Meermin,
was to be the site of an act of violent resistance, murder and an abortive bid for freedom. Approximately 140
Madagascan slaves revolted against the VOC crew manning the vessel and assume control of the ship; they were
subsequently deceived by a Dutch crew desperate for their lives, transported to a region far from the island
kingdoms that they regarded as home, and ultimately violently defeated on the coast of a foreign land, a land where
many were to remain and die, recaptured by those over whom they had, for a brief moment, won such a devastating
victory. Their grasp for liberty thwarted by an almost fantastic mixture of cunning, firepower and luck, they were
ultimately to submit to the authority of the cause of their oppression, and to remain in the land from which their
attempts at flight had been directed.
This land was the Cape Colony, under the hegemony of the VOC in the mid-18th
Century; and on its coast, at the southernmost tip of the continent at Cape Agulhas, is the scene of this, one of
the most violent, improbable and yet compulsive acts of resistance to occur in the early history of what is today
modern South Africa.
The most import artifact of this project is the ship itself. TheMeerminwas known
as a ‘Hoeker’, a specific type of ship that has its roots in the 14thcentury. The ship type was developed for
catching cod and haddock by using lines with baited hooks – from there the name ‘hoeker’. Originally the ships had
only one or two masts, but in the 17thcentury the Dutch East India Company (VOC) built several of these vessels as
cargo carriers and had them sometimes with three masts.
This type of ship was very popular with the VOC from about 1665 to 1670. The
hoekers’ type of construction withstood the warping effects of the Eastern waters better than the ‘fluits’ – the
ship type of choice up to then. The VOC stopped using hoekers towards the end of the 17thcentury, but constructed
some periodically mainly for use at their colonies as multi-purpose vessels. Four hoekers were constructed during
the 1760’s for the Cape service. One of these was theMeermin.
The ship's final voyage is well documented in letters and court records in
archives in Cape Town, which are being organized electronically by Andrew Alexander, a University of Cape
Town history student who is working with Mr. Boshoff. The documents tell a story rife with folly, trickery, men
tossed overboard, bottled messages, rescue ships gone awry and captives-turned-captors-turned-captives once
In the end, half of the 60-member Dutch crew and perhaps dozens of slaves were
killed. The surviving crew went down in ignominy for losing their ship; the Malagasy slaves met bondage and
The Dutch East India Company dispatched the three-masted Meermin from Cape
Town in December 1765 to buy slaves on the west coast of Madagascar, nearly 1,700 miles away. The growing
Dutch settlement at Cape Town relied on slave labor, and the warring tribes on Madagascar were known to
trade their captives to European merchants for guns and goods.
In late January, the Meermin left Madagascar with 147 slaves, including
some women and children. Fearful the slaves would die in the airless cargo hold, the ship's captain ordered at
least some of them unchained and allowed on deck. Another senior officer decided to employ five slaves to clean
spears and other weapons that the crew had picked up in Madagascar as souvenirs.
It was a stunningly
stupid move. Armed, the slaves killed about half the crew, stabbing them to death or tossing them overboard.
Surviving sailors barricaded themselves in the ship's lower quarters, surviving on raw bacon, potatoes and
Once they realized they could not sail the ship on their own, the Malagasy allowed
several crew members on deck to guide them back to Madagascar.
By day, the Dutch headed in the general direction of the island.
But at night they steered full sail for Cape Town. By the end of February,
they had made it to 90 miles east of Cape Town. Spotting shore, the slaves decided they had reached their
homeland and dropped anchor in the bay. Seventy slaves piled into two small boats and headed ashore, promising to
light three fires on the beach to signal the others if the land was Madagascar.
They did not get far. Dutch farmers, suspicious of
the stationary ship without a flag, had alerted the local magistrate and organized a force of local men to patrol
the beach. When the slaves hit shore, they were killed or captured.
For the next week, the Meermin remained at sea while
the Malagasy aboard tried to figure out what had happened and the Dutch on shore tried to figure out what to
At some point, records indicate, more slaves came ashore in a raft, spotted a
black shepherd running away and decided they had reached Madagascar. Their fate is unclear.
Dutch authorities in Cape Town dispatched two rescue ships, but neither
managed to find StruisBay.
The Meermin's officers at sea were trying to
communicate with the Dutch on shore by the only method at hand: letters in bottles.
The letter sent to the VOC by the crew of Meermin by
Two floated ashore, were retrieved and delivered to
the magistrate on March 6. The officers asked for three fires to be lit on the beach to deceive Malagasy into
letting the ship come ashore. "Otherwise all will go immediately to their deaths," one letter
Another letter advised that the "Neegers" were
unaware of their location and could be caught off guard.
The trick worked. The ship sailed toward the beach,
hitting a sandbar. Confronted with the Dutch force, the slaves gave up.
Heuningnes River Mouth
For a week, the Dutch authorities worked to retrieve the ship's
goods, recovering 286 muskets, 12 pistols, 5 bayonets, compasses and barrels of gunpowder and musket balls. They
held an auction on the beach of ship cables, ropes and other less valuable items, then left the broken Meermin
to be swallowed up by sand.
Much has transpired on this beach since then. Before
the area became part of a nature reserve, fishermen drove up and down it. One farmer erected a
Valuable artifacts uncovered by the tides over
centuries could now be sitting in someone's garage. When he first saw the vast expanse of sand near the river's
mouth, Mr. Boshoff said with a grin, he thought to himself: "Phew! What have I let myself in
On the other hand, the sand might have preserved
what water would have destroyed. Historical records suggest that the ship went down in or near the river's mouth,
narrowing the search for its remains.
Mr. Boshoff has also retrieved the ship's original
blueprints, which will help him identify its size and shape.