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.
Through a rigorous examination of historical sources that detail the events of a particular slave mutiny that occurred off Cape Agulhas in 1766, a narrative will be constructed that will be as faithful as possible to the actual events as they were recorded. From such a narrative, one will be able to examine aspects of slave resistance and mutiny that are illuminated in the light of this particular incident, an examination that may do something to debunk the myths that conceal and distance as much as they may inspire.
What adds significance to this project is the current attempt to uncover the wreckage of the Meermin. Jaco Boshoff, a marine archaeologist, is currently engaged in a project to locate the site where the Meermin may be buried, and then, if successful, to excavate whatever remains of the vessel.
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; thus one account, located in the Readers’ Digest Illustrated History of South Africa, records the events of the uprising and shipwreck, but in a relating illustration makes some confusion with a record that relates to the second Meermin. This account is brief, but fairly accurate in its rendering of the events. However, the ship’s log that is referred to in the illustration belonged to the second Meermin; no logbook has been recovered from the Meermin of 1766, and so no daily log is contained in the historical record. In addition to the brief version of the events contained in the Readers’ Digest, an unpublished narrative has been written by the historian of Dutch rule at the Cape and recently published novelist, Dan Sleigh. This narrative, comprising 16 pages and written in Afrikaans, provides for a detailed and yet concise summation of the mutiny and the subsequent events culminating in the wreck. Sleigh’s account relies primarily on the sources that I have consulted; his narrative is thus founded on the actual historical record, and is the most complete and comprehensive account that is currently in existence.