There have been many ships that have met their untimely end on this stretch of coastline. The events leading up to the ultimate sinking of a ship are full of bravery, heroism, fear, disbelief, survival and of course loss. One of these ships that met its’ end on the Struisbaai coastline had a beautiful name – The Mermaid. Unfortunately the rest of tail is one of tragedy…
The Meermin (Mermaid) was an 18-century cargo ship of 480 tons that was built in 1759 in the Amsterdam Ship Yard for the Amsterdam Chamber of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The Mermaid was a hoeker, a ship type that has its’ origins in the 14th Century and was originally used to catch cod by trailing baited hooks on lines. The VOC updated this design, as it could better withstand the warping effect of the Eastern waters, to build a few cargo ships of which the Meermin was one.
Once the building was completed the Mermaid was commissioned in 1761 and it’s slaving career lasted until 1766 where it became grounded off Struisbaai near the Southernmost Point of South Africa.
The Mutiny on the Meermin
In 1766 the ship was en route from Madagascar to Cape Town under the command of Captain Gerrit Christoffel Muller.
On the return trip to the Cape, Johann Godfried Krause, the ships chief merchant, persuaded the Captain to release the slaves from their shackles to avoid loosing them to death and disease, which was the usual result of overcrowded living conditions aboard slavers. The slaves were put to work and used to entertain the crew.
Discipline among the crew subsequently broke down with many of the crew carrying on long drinking sessions. Vigilance was further relaxed when the ship neared the Cape. Foolishly Krause even had the slaves clean a range of weapons including a collection of exotic Malagasy weapons.
The Slaves assume Control of the Ship
Over 140 Madagascan seized upon the opportunity, killing many of the crew before the remaining crew and the Captain barricaded themselves below deck or fled into the rigging. Those who had sought refuge amid the sails eventually came down, only to be tossed overboard and killed.
With the slaves in control of the deck and the last of the 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 manoeuvres 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 where the unharmed crew would sail the ship but return the slaves to Madagascar. However, relying on the slave’s ignorance of navigation, the crew headed the ship towards the Cape coast. 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 the anchor was dropped.
The Slave Landing Party
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 were anxiously 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 area`s chief magistrate, who caught the meaning and complied to light the fires, 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 would drift towards the shore of what they thought was Madagascar. The advance party of slaves were captured by the men of the Magistrate, which was observed by those aboard. The Slaves on board turned on the remaining crew, which had dreaded this possible turn of events. Those on shore could not assist the Dutch sailors.
The Meermin runs Aground
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 in irons again.
The crew raised the Dutch flag, signalling 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 items ashore, but the ship became more and more engulfed in the sand and eventually was covered and began to break up.
Unfortunately the custom of the day was to send the 112 remaining slaves to Cape Town to be auctioned.
Captain Muller was tried for culpable negligence, found guilty, stripped of rank and pay and discharged from the Company’s service.
The two surviving leaders of the mutiny were sent to Robben Island off Cape Town for observation, where one died three years later and the other survived incarcerated for a further 20 years.