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Slave Ship Meermin 1766

The Meermin Story


At Zoetendal’s Valleij…

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At the beginning of March, Johannes Le Sueur, the Landdrost of the District of Stellenbosch and Drakenstijn, decided to travel to the Soetendaal’s Valleij, a region just east of Cape Agulhas that is close to present-day Struisbaai. His journey was motivated by a letter that had been despatched to him on the 27 of February by a local official named Hentz. The letter detailed a series of events that would have been of the utmost concern to a district magistrate. A ship that bore no flag had moored offshore; officials on shore having been alerted of such a strange occurrence, a commando comprising of local burghers had been assigned to patrol the beach. These vigilant measures were not to have been taken in vain; a large number of slaves 3 came ashore in two light vessels, whereupon they were accosted by the commando who had been alerted to their presence. A battle ensued, in which a number of the slaves were killed; the remainder had been captured, and were being stationed on a neighbouring burgher’s farm.

Such a report must have been of significant concern to Le Sueur; indeed, one could go so far to say that the import of the letter would have been enough to shock him profoundly. The chief official responsible for maintaining law and order in the district, he was being faced with an event of unprecedented proportions. Details were yet scarce, although it was clear that slaves had successfully instigated a violent uprising and forcefully commandeered a VOC vessel; such information must have resonated with the fears of any colonial official holding such a position as his, where the prospect of violent rebellion was always a very real possibility to the propagators of a system of institutionalised oppression. Not unsurprisingly, Le Sueur considered the matter to require the greatest attention that could be accorded it. He thus decided that it would require nothing less than his personal attention, and made plans to depart for the Soetendaal’s Valleij at the greatest possible speed. It would probably be safe to say that the events that were to unfold over the next two weeks would comprise the most challenging, harrowing and indeed the most strange experience of Le Sueur’s career.

By 2 March he had arrived in the region and installed himself in the home of Barend Geldenhuijs, a local farmer. From Geldenhuijs, he proceeded to the property of another burgher, Wessels Wesselsen, on which the recaptured slaves were being sheltered. At the farm, he observed 18 male slaves, whom he interviewed in order to ascertain the situation that prevailed on board the Meermin and that had enabled these slaves to row to shore from a vessel on which they were supposed to have been secured as prisoners. The details provided by Le Sueur relating to this interview are sketchy, but to the Landdrost newly arrived from Stellenbosch with little idea of the cause for such a strange and dangerous occurrence they would have been disconcertingly revealing. Through an interpreter, he was led to understand that many of the Europeans were ill; a phrase used in the letter translates as “partly dead”, indicating either that a large number had been murdered, as has been observed, or that many were sick to the point that they were approaching death. He also records that, at sight of land, the slaves had forced the European sailors to approach the shore; furthermore, he notes that the slaves gave their total number as 150, of which a significant number had remained on the ship. He further adds that an additional amount of 14 slaves, including women, had been recaptured by the commando; this is to be a recurring feature of Le Sueur’s correspondence, as he periodically records subsequent recapturing of slaves as they occurred sporadically throughout the period that he was to reside at the Soetendaal’s Valleij.

While it is difficult to penetrate Le Sueur’s mental world through his letters (which possess predominantly factual content, and appear to be intended to appease a dissatisfied and distinctly unhappy Cape government), it would be useful at this point to consider what an event such as this would have entailed for him. While mutinies are by no means unheard of in the VOC era, they are certainly rare; and while a slave uprising had occurred in 1753 (referred to above), it had been quelled with relative ease, and little in the way of mutinous violence had occurred in the direct vicinity of the Cape up to this point. Le Sueur was thus faced with a disaster of unprecedented extent, and furthermore a disaster that was yet in the process of unfolding. In addition, he was equipped with only the sketchiest of details regarding the actual condition of the ship and the crew as well as the events that had culminated in the fatal overthrow of a VOC-mandated authority. All he knew was that slaves from Madagascar, who had been bound for the Cape, had risen up, murdered many of the crew and commandeered the vessel; and, to his even greater stupefaction, they had weighed anchor off Cape Agulhas and come ashore. This very fact that the slaves had come ashore must have been something of a mystery to Le Sueur, who would have found it difficult to comprehend the circumstances that would compel mutinous slaves to moor their vessel in the very territory governed by those whose official representatives had negotiated their enforced state of servitude. Of course, it is more a matter of speculation than of actual historical investigation to decipher of what Le Sueur’s internal state would have comprised. Suffice to say that, in the light of his own testimony regarding the gradually unfolding nature of events that were being made known to him, and taking into account the magnitude of the Meermin mutiny and the significance such a disaster must have entailed for a legal official of the VOC, one can surmise that he would have been somewhat daunted by the task that presented itself before him. As subsequent letters demonstrate, his frequent and detailed correspondence with the Cape government, and his repeated requests for assistance and advice, allow one to construct an admittedly sketchy portrait of a senior official who displays a sense of acute discomfort, a man inhabiting a situation in which he is somewhat out of his depth. As shall be demonstrated further, he is very much a spectator to the outrageous events of which he, on the landward side, is chief witness; and one cannot but possess some sympathy for a man confronted with such a gargantuan challenge. Only as days went by and events began to unfold would he begin to grasp more firmly what had brought this strange, violent episode to the shores of his territory; and the circumstances that lead up to his being able to piece together the story of the mutiny are themselves as surprising and unbelievable as any others that have been here recorded.

By 3 March, Le Sueur had arrived at the farm of yet another burgher, Matthijs Rostok, who owned land near the beach of the Soetendaal’s Valleij. The participation and cooperation of the local farmers and white citizenry becomes more and more evident as one progresses through Le Sueur’s correspondence. At this stage it will suffice to say that Le Sueur was relying heavily, if not completely, on local farmers, both for hospitality and for physical aid in the recapture of the landed slaves; and that the rescue operation that he would ultimately oversee was not a VOC-dominated manoeuvre facilitated by officials and workers of the Company, but rather was a cooperative venture heavily reliant on the local farmers for manpower and expertise. When he reached the beach, Le Sueur was able to view the ship for the first time. He estimated the vessel as being anchored one hour off shore and out of any immediate danger. On the beach he found the “barcas” and the “schuit”, the two landing vessels employed by the 70 slaves to come ashore, of which the former was deeply buried in the sand. A sailor, who had been picked up by a commando on the beach, was also brought to Le Sueur; he had come ashore with the slaves, and had managed to escape once they had reached the beach. He claimed that he had the intention to proceed with all speed to the Cape, but that, due to some problems with his legs, he was unable to do this. Having gained all the useful information that he could from him, Le Sueur despatched him to the Cape to report to the governing authorities. With some knowledge as to the nature of the uprising and the condition of those remaining aboard the vessel, Le Sueur was forced to wait on the beach until he could devise some means of approaching the Meermin and, either by negotiation or by force, securing the release of the crew. Significantly, there was no boat suitable enough to mount any kind of naval offensive in the vicinity; and in order to proceed with any definitive plan, one of the Meermin’s own landing vessels, now on the beach, would have to be repaired.

At some stage after the original party of slaves had gone ashore, the slaves who had remained on board decided to try and find out exactly where they were situated. To do this, they constructed a raft from some wood, and sailed to the shore. On their return, they informed the slave body that they were indeed in Madagascar; they had seen a black sheep herder, but he had fled before they had been able to communicate with him. This was a stroke of good luck for the crew; had the slaves been able to catch the sheep herder and attempt to speak with him, they would have come back possessing a vastly different frame of mind. As shall be seen, it was as much sheer luck as it was ingenuity on their part that ultimately enabled them to survive their ordeal and escape a wrath that the slaves, had they known their true situation, would most definitely have exhibited towards them.

At this stage there is a significant gap in the correspondence, with no relevant letter reaching the Cape between 3 March, when he first inspected the beach, and the 7th. In the meantime, the Cape had not been idle in responding to Le Sueur’s missives. A decision was undertaken in the Council of Policy to embark on two actions. Firstly, on March 3 they despatched two hoekers, the Nepthunus and the Snelheijd, with a Sergeant, 2 Corporals and 25 soldiers, to provide naval assistance in the defeat of the mutineers and the recovery of the Meermin. There is little that one can say about this expedition, precisely because by the time these vessels reached the Soetendaal’s Valleij the action was all over. The vessels had struggled to find the precise location of the Meermin’s anchorage, and sailed up and down the coast while Le Sueur was struggling to obtain some means of rescuing the Europeans held captive. By the time the hoekers reached the Soetendaal’s Valleij, all had been resolved, upon which receiving such news they sailed back to the Cape. Where naval power may have provided a different denouement to that which shall ultimately be witnessed, conditions prevented the narrative from assuming this particular shape. As with so much in this account, luck and chance are by no means minor players; arguably, circumstance is the true author of the form that this account ultimately assumes.

The second action undertaken by the Cape was to despatch, by land, three ship’s carpenters led by Philip van den Berg, the head of the ship’s carpenters on the Company Wharf at Cape Town, as well as 2 “stuurlieden”(pilots), a quartermaster and 20 sailors. This party, having left on March 4, was to reach the Soetendaal’s Valleij without the navigational difficulties that were obviously experienced by the Nepthunus and the Snelheijd. While most of this body were to remain spectators to the events that were to follow, the ship’s carpenters were to provide much-needed assistance to Le Sueur, an assistance that would indirectly shape the uprising’s culmination.

On the 7th, Le Sueur resumes his correspondence with the Cape to recount a remarkable series of events that had begun on the 6th. He refers to the carpenters as inspecting the “barcas” and the “schuit” on the 6 March, indicating that they had arrived by this date and were engaging themselves with examining the Meermin’s landing craft with the intention of repairing them in order to invade the vessel by sea. He had descended to the beach to examine these operations, when he was approached by a “Hottentot” (Khoi) carrying a bottle in his hand. Inside the bottle was a letter, signed by the Bottelier Jan de Leeuw on behalf of the crew. Even more unexpectedly, this find was supplemented by another, also a bottle containing a letter, this one signed by Olof Leij. Evidently the letters had been written by these two officers, placed and sealed in the bottles and tossed overboard with the hope that they would be discovered by allies on the coast. The sheer improbability of even one bottle being recovered on the shore in such a fashion must be evident to even the most imaginative observer; the fact that both reached the shore in fairly close proximity to one another, and were both discovered by their intended recipients, is truly remarkable 4.

Both letters were, in effect, pleas for help. However, they did not merely beg for any measure of assistance that those on shore could devise from their own efforts. Rather, both the letters enjoined a particular plan of action that the sailors felt could enable their escape, but that relied for its success on the cooperation of friendly forces on the shore. After briefly detailing the violent uprising and the decision by 70 of the slaves to journey to shore 5, details with which Le Sueur was naturally already acquainted, both letters outline what the crew requires of their landward allies 6. In effect, both letters requested that three fires be lit on the shore; they claim that the “Swarten”, a term commonly used by the Europeans when referring to the slaves (“Neegers” is another commonly employed term used in similar fashion; the racial connotations of both expressions are obvious), do not know about the presence of local farmers in the area, and that if these fires are lit the slaves will bring the Meermin close to shore. Little else, in the way of information or supplication, is provided; and Le Sueur, dumbfounded as he must have been at the improbable means by which he had arrived at this direct communication from the stranded crew, was forced to act on little more than faith. His own letter of March 7 describes his ambivalence towards the sailors’ requests, and of he struggled to interpret a reasonable explanation for an appeal that he no doubt found to be somewhat bizarre. In possession of only the barest of details, knowing that some of the slaves had already come ashore but unaware of the intentions of those who remained aboard or of the motivations of the crew in making this supplication, he was forced to consider his next move in what might be considered an epistemological vacuum. No request for advice from the Cape would be of much benefit; he evidently noted the urgent tone discernable in both letters, and realised that he would have to act quickly and decisively. It is probable that it was this very urgency on the part of the crew as expressed in their writing, an urgency that evokes an atmosphere of such desperation that a plan as outrageous as this could be considered, that ultimately decided Le Sueur’s hand. He decided to light the three fires as requested. Early in the morning on March 7, the fires were lit on the beach where they would be easily visible from the Meermin. Shortly after the fires had achieved a strength and brightness significant enough to be viewed from the vessel, those on the shore witnessed the Meermin being set towards the beach and sailing to a position that Le Sueur estimated to be a musket shot from their vantage point on the shore. It was the first time that the ship had altered position since it had first entered the bay and dropped anchor. Evidently, the lighting of the fires had produced its desired effect; what was not yet clear to Le Sueur and his contemporaries was how and why the ship was moved to a position of such increased vulnerability to attack than that which it had previously occupied.

As events were to turn out, from this moment Le Sueur had to do very little but wait; it is almost as if events garnered their own momentum, a momentum that became possessed of the inevitability and catastrophic destiny of an epic tragedy. After the ship had dropped anchor, those on shore observed some figures on the Meermin chopping down one of the ship’s masts. Whatever surprise this action might have caused was soon to be eclipsed by the events that were to follow. A sailor swam to shore and, on arriving at the beach, was brought to Le Sueur. What this sailor had to tell provides further fascinating detail into the means by which the crew had been able to manipulate the plans of the captors in such a way as to ultimately bring about their downfall. The sailor, who remains nameless in the correspondence but who de Leeuw names Rijk Meyer, claimed that he had been sent ashore by the slaves to ascertain whether their comrades (by which one presumes he meant the slaves who had sailed ashore a few days earlier) might be on shore. However, his intentions went far beyond satisfying the demands of the mutineers. Prior to his departure from the vessel, he had made a secret agreement with the crew that, should he discover friends on the shore who were able to provide assistance, he would provide a signal to his fellows on board to indicate to them that the opportunity for their rescue was near at hand. The means of this signal is not detailed in the correspondence, but de Leeuw and Sleigh describe how Meijer had agreed to wave a handkerchief around his head as a means of signalling his fellow sailors. The irony of this situation is rather striking. 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 and of the actual location of the Meermin, the other was founded on a misguided fantasy that had been fuelled both by deceit and by a devastating lack of formal knowledge and capability, a lack that had made this very deceit possible. It was ultimately within the sphere of knowledge that the decisive role in the entire affair was played; and it was this strange mixture of accuracy and misjudgement, of a realistic assessment of geography and circumstance and a fantasy that had been fuelled by eager hope and cruel deceit, that charges the entire narrative with a particularly tragic irony.

The signal was given, upon which a canoe was lowered from the Meermin and guided towards the shore. In the canoe were six mutineers and one of the sailors, who were viewed to be rowing towards a high sand dune where, coincidentally, a commando had been posted. The letter details the following events as the inadvertent result of a bungling of orders, albeit a bungling that was largely inevitable. The commando had been ordered to hide in the eventuality of a landing party approaching from the vessel. As the Meermin was now only a short distance from the shore, it would no doubt have been in the interests of the Dutch to conceal their presence and thereby not alert the mutineers to their presence and thus disclose their error to them. Such an eventuality would undoubtedly lead to an aggressive response on their part, giving rise to a sudden desperation, and would likely culminate in a violent finale. Le Sueur does not specifically claim that he had issued this order; but his emphasis on it having been given, particularly in the light of what ensued when it was, by virtue of circumstance, discarded, can be viewed as an attempt on his part to absolve himself of responsibility through emphasising the measures that had been adopted to prevent just such a setback form occurring. As it was, the canoe approached the sand dune at such a rapid rate that the commando was provided with no opportunity to conceal themselves. As a result, they were forced to attack the mutineers as they stepped out of the canoe onto the sand. A short battle ensued that was fierce enough to result in death and injury, as well as to alert both Le Sueur and his cohort on the shore and the sailors and slaves who were still aboard the Meermin. One slave was shot dead, while another was wounded and two were taken prisoner; two were unaccounted for, one of whom had managed in the confusion to swim away and one who simply could not be found and was considered either to have drowned or to have swum back to the ship. No reference is provided as to any deaths or casualties on the part of the commando, and one can therefore presume that all of the European combatants survived the skirmish unscathed. If these brief details are anything to go by, it would seem that the slaves, expecting to find themselves in friendly and familiar territory, were taken by surprise by the commando, despite the fact that the burghers had been unable to conceal themselves. Thus disadvantaged, and coupled with the fact that they would have been significantly outnumbered, it was a brief and sudden defeat that the commando inflicted on the slaves, and one whose ultimate significance they could not have foreseen at the moment that they were thus engaged. In the aftermath of the skirmish, one of the sailors who had come ashore identified the dead slave as none other than the leader of the mutineers. Such a definitive identification is some indication that Massavana was not considered, at least by the crew, to be the leader of the mutineers, although other documentary evidence situates him and Koesaij as highly significant players. Unfortunately, this leader remains nameless in the historical record; thus the coordinator of one of the most significant events in 18th Century South African history has passed into posterity with not so much as an initial. Nevertheless, one could certainly point to this skirmish as the ultimate deciding factor that sealed the fate of the mutineers and enabled the Dutch, both on shore and on the Meermin, to gain the initiative; a fact that must have been all too apparent to the remaining mutineers, who proceeded to give vent to their displeasure.

Le Sueur and his men could now hear sounds of violent conflict carried across the waters from the Meermin lying a short distance away. It must have been clear to them that the skirmish on the beach had alerted the mutineers to their presence, the knowledge of which would have finally enabled them to realise the manner in which they had been deceived. It is difficult to grasp the complete shock and sense of helplessness and defeat with which the mutineers must have reacted on seeing their fellows defeated by a large force of white men, who they would naturally and correctly have associated with their original captors. Until this moment, the slaves still on board were firmly of the belief that they had arrived at their own country; the fact that they had despatched a canoe on the word of a sailor who, it was now evident, had been involved with his fellows in double-crossing them, is testimony to the extent to which they had been deceived. On witnessing the subsequent battle, and possibly the death of their leader as well (it is difficult to ascertain the likelihood of their having been able to witness such detail, but as the ship was certainly close to the beach this is not an eventuality that can be completely discounted), they would have been forcefully confronted with the stark reality of their situation, one that would have effected a radical alteration of consciousness and provoked a sense of collective desperation. What one is witness to here is a profound shift in consciousness that must have taken place in a matter of minutes, one that revealed to the slaves that they had been duped and that they had no means of escape. Faced with such a horrifying, completely unforeseen reality, the slaves did what perhaps one could only have expected of those finding themselves in such a position: they aggressively attacked those responsible for deceiving them so heartlessly, who of course happened to be the crew. A fantasy in which they had placed their hope had been revealed to be a chimera; and the subsequent battle is thus in many respects similar to that in which they had gained control of the vessel, in that its dominant emotive content was the expression of anger and rage, governed by a terrible sense of powerlessness towards the agents of their deceit.

Le Sueur heard the sounds of battle taking place on the Meermin, and describes how the air would be continuously pierced with the sounds of gunfire. It had also become clear to him that the Meermin had become wedged in such a manner that it was no longer capable of movement in any direction. He devised that the ship must have become lodged on a sandbank; this was confirmed by one of the sailors who had made it to shore, who described the vessel as “digt”, or closed, indicating that indeed it had become immobile. The attempt at deceiving the mutineers into coming ashore and into the hands of the Dutch having been thwarted, Le Sueur and his compatriots were left with one advantage, this being the fact that the Meermin was incapable of sailing away beyond their reach. In effect, they had a captive target aboard the ship. Their one exceeding disadvantage, a circumstance that was only too evident to him, was that there existed no able means to board the Meermin due to their lack of adequate sea transportation. Le Sueur and his men had no idea what damage the mutineers might do both to the crew and to the vessel itself now that they had been made aware of their true condition; and his sense of urgency is reflected in his letter of the 7th, in which he asks for advice from the Cape and describes how he is engaged in repairing the “schuit” for the purpose of invading the Meermin. In effect, until such repairs were completed, Le Sueur had little option but to wait and hope for the best.

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