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Slave Ship Meermin 1766

The Meermin Story


The Story Begins…

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The Meermin was not an exceptional vessel, nor was it, by any means, embarking on any particularly unusual or dangerous operation. It was a hoeker, a small, three-masted multipurpose vessel that had been adapted and rigged for slaving expeditions. Outfitted in Amsterdam in 1761, the Meermin had already engaged in a number of slaving expeditions during the years preceding her fatal voyage of 1766. Hence, one may suppose, the complacency of the crew, a complacency that was ultimately to cost half of them their lives.The mutiny and ultimate wreck of the Meermin was enabled, in a number of ways, by sickness. The Gesaghebber(captain), Gerrit Christoffel Muller, was not a well man; he claims, in his plea before the court penned in the minutes for the Council of Justice in 1766, that he had been sick for some time before the mutiny. This appeal to his own lack of well-being as a mitigating factor for his poor performance is apparently his primary justification in his plea for a measure of clemency. Whatever degree of seriousness this sickness may have entailed, it is clear that the Gesaghebber was not in a fit frame of mind or body; and his own lack of willingness or ability to lead his men due to his illness is the first indicator of a slackened atmosphere of discipline aboard the ship, an atmosphere that could be manipulated towards one favouring the success of an open rebellion.It was not only Muller who was suffering in such a manner. On-board illness was certainly a common feature in seafaring expeditions of the 18th Century, and any infection could rapidly spread among the inhabitants of such a small, enclosed space with no natural outlet and little in the way of effective medicinal practice. So it was that the slaves, chained and cooped below deck in conditions of undoubted discomfort that are difficult for the present-day observer to imagine, fell prey to some form of disease. When one takes subsequent events into account, one is tempted to consider the possibility that the slaves may have been faking the symptoms of illness in order to obtain the degree of freedom necessary to stage a mutiny. No matter how convincing such a thesis may appear in the light of the events of the Meermin, it would be difficult to substantiate fully in the lack of definitive evidence. The crew, and in particular the officers under Muller, were obviously convinced that the slaves were ill and in need of some ameliorative treatment. Again one is tempted to conjecture, to suppose the possibility that Muller’s heart was filled with compassion for the large number of those who were sharing a similar condition as that which he was suffering himself. Such suppositions aside, it was decided that the slaves could be freed of their chains in order for them to gain some fresh air and to recover as much as possible; the Malagasy slave route often experienced large losses of slaves en route, and no doubt the officers were determined to preserve as much of what was now Company property as was humanly possible. The slaves were released; the wheels were turning, and the conditions necessary for slave mutiny were as ripe as is perhaps on a slaving vessel of this era.

It was Gesaghebber Muller who authorised the unchaining of the slaves, who were subsequently allowed to walk around on deck. It was his first major blunder, the fatal consequences of which he could not possibly have foreseen at the time. The Company issued fairly strict regulations regarding the securing of slaves on board ship; and while it does allow for slaves to be brought on deck under certain conditions, it stresses that such a practice is to be limited, and that on such occasions that slaves are brought on deck a careful watch must be maintained at all times. The document highlights the propensity for slaves to hurl themselves overboard as the most pressing concern with regard to them being brought above decks; a concerted mutiny is not mentioned, and one can presume that the likelihood of such a fatal turn of events had not impressed itself on the writers of the Madagascar document. Certainly, one would be inclined to view Muller’s decision to free a large number of slaves and allow them free movement on deck as a clear breach of Company principle, hence the harshness of his sentencing. Granted that he, like many Company officials, would have in all likelihood viewed the outbreak of a slave mutiny as a virtual impossibility, his decision to allow such uncircumscribed freedom to recently purchased slaves was perhaps motivated by the combination of an understandable concern for the maintenance of Company property with a lax attitude to the regulations governing slaving conduct, a laxness perhaps shaped by his own deteriorating condition. In fact, there was a precedent to suggest the possibility of violent insurrection; in 1753, a slave mutiny had occurred on the vessel Drie Heuvelen, which was suppressed before the slaves were able to gain control of the ship. The fact that such a rebellion had occurred less than fifteen years previously makes Muller’s conduct appear all the more foolish. One must presume that, as a Company servant, he considered the slaves in his charge as powerless and as mere physical entities incapable of human-motivated action, despite the historical evidence to the contrary. Muller had overstepped the boundaries of acceptable practice; the environment for mutiny had been set, with slaves walking the ship of their captors with greater freedom than one would expect a responsible captain to have granted them.

The atmosphere instigated by the actions of Muller were not of themselves sufficient for mutiny, although it is a matter of fascinating conjecture whether another form of rebellion would have occurred had Commies (Senior Merchant and second in command) Crause not embarked on his disastrous course of action. If there is a man whose actions propels him beyond the sphere of the inept and hurls him headlong into the role of the buffoon, then such a man is Commies Johan Godfried Crause. The Readers’ Digest Illustrated History of South Africa describes Crause as a man who took “Muller’s casual attitude” to “ridiculous lengths”; and while Muller certainly stands out as a captain whose authoritative ineptitude created an atmosphere conducive to mutinous violence, Crause has to be credited with not only allowing such a mutiny to happen, but also, quite literally, with supplying the slaves with the tools they required to turn their dreams of personal liberation into a reality. These tools were, naturally, weapons; and it was Crause who, deciding that the Malagasy weapons obtained (probably as curiosities) at the purchase of the slaves required some maintenance, put forward the idea, in itself no sign of stupidity, that those best qualified to clean Malagasy weapons would be those hailing from Madagascar. The only problem in Crause’s scheme was that the only Malagasies in any kind of reachable distance were the slaves aboard the Meermin, a group who, one would suppose, the Dutch officials may have suspected of harbouring at least some measure of resentment or anger. Perhaps such suspicions never entered the head of Crause, in which case he is a man whose naivety is almost unbelievable; or perhaps he simply did not consider the possibility of violence as one that had the least chance of assuming reality. Whatever his mental processes at the time, one can reasonably assume that his understanding of the slaves mentality was minimal, and that he must have been a man of limited imagination.

It was Tuesday 18 February 1766, the first truly significant date in the course of this unfortunate voyage. Koksmaat (steward) Harmen Koops describes how, with the Gesaghebber’s approval, Commies Crause requested that he bring the weapons up on deck for the slaves to clean. Dan Sleigh explains that some of the slaves had already been put to work on board by Muller, who no doubt saw no reason for them to wait until arriving at the Cape before being assigned to labour; he highlights the fact that Massavana (one of the Malagasy slaves) and some of his contemporaries had been assigned to controlling and maintaining the sails. Thus, in addition to their being allowed on deck, the slaves had been granted considerable freedom of movement on the ship; instead of being herded together under the watchful eye of a VOC officer, as one would have reasonably expected, the slaves were distributed around the vessel and had been allowed what amounts to a free reign. Such a situation certainly indicates a laissez-faire attitude amongst the officers, an attitude indicative of a remarkable detachment from reality and an absolute absence of suspicion that the slaves may take advantage of their radically altered circumstances.

Harmen Koop brought the weapons, which were in the main Malagasy spears, and Muller and Crause assigned five slaves to clean them under the supervision of some sailors. Crucially, some of the senior officers were present while this undoubtedly irregular operation was put under way. Koop describes how Crause had disappeared to have a meal after assigning the slaves to this task, and was only to appear, to his ultimate detriment, when the attack commenced. Muller claimed to have been gazing out over the sea when he was attacked by the slaves, and stabbed severely. Muller’s narrative of the events is of a retiring nature in which he seems to be abrogating responsibility; the sense one gets from his own testimony is of an entirely passive figure, shattered from his reveries by the point of an spear. His ascription of the responsibility for the disastrous cleaning scheme entirely to Crause is equally revealing, for he describes how Crause had wanted the weapons cleaned and had engaged the slaves’ services on his own account. He also reiterates the debilitating nature of his illness, as though he were unable to effectively intervene either in the enactment of this disastrous course of action, or in the violence that followed. All in all, we are being presented with a picture of Muller, reflected as much in his own words as in those of his contemporaries, that is decidedly unflattering. In attempting to rescind any responsibility that may have been his, Muller comes across as someone with a decided lack of control over his own vessel, a passive captain scarcely aware of the goings-on aboard his own ship.

Those of the crew who survived were those who managed to barricade themselves in the Constapelskamer, (at the stern of the vessel where the arms and ammunition was kept) where they were to spend a good few days. As far as one is able to make out, Gesaghebber Muller, Onderstuurman (Mate) Gulik and Adsistent (Junior Merchant) Leij clambered into the chamber through the windows, while a number of others, including Hofmeester (steward) Harmen Koop and the Bottelier (steward) Jan de Leeuw, were to add to their number. Gulik, too, had been wounded; he was cut above the eye, which he must have obtained in what he describes as a particularly violent struggle. Only those who had attained the relative safety of the Constapelskamer survived, and it is clear that several had suffered wounds of varying degrees. The remainder perished.

According to Sleigh, Crause was one of the first to be killed, dropped with an assegai after emerging to attempt to talk with the now-armed slaves. It is difficult to find direct references in the testimonies of Muller, Gulik and Leij as to Crause’s death, but is clear that he perished, along with those members of the crew who were too far from the Constapelskamer to make it to safety. Others who perished include Onderstuurman (mate) Bender and Onderstuurman Albert; it would appear that Gulik was the only member of that rank to survive the attack. The ferocity of the battle itself appears to indicate a tremendous anger and rage on the part of the slaves, who seem to have demonstrated little consideration for the benefit that might be theirs should they preserve the lives of the crew. All members of the crew who did not make it to the place of safety were stabbed and/or thrown overboard. The slaves may have been seizing a most opportune moment for regaining their freedom, but the battle was as much a direct assault on their former overlords as it was a bid for liberty. While it would reinforce a crass stereotype to over-emphasise the bloodthirstiness of the slaves, it is not so impertinent to highlight what was undoubtedly a savage and ferocious battle. The intensity of the anger manifested on the Meermin on 18 February 1766 is certainly difficult to imagine for a contemporary audience not directly acquainted with the brutal realities of the slave trade; and perhaps all that one can do is note the manifestations of what was not a wholly rational and pre-conceived plan of action, but the consequences of a particularly unique set of circumstances that brought to the surface those violent and brutal undercurrents that underpinned the practice of 18th Century VOC-directed slavery in a horrific, and yet at the same time deeply revealing, moment of spontaneous slave resistance. As is often the case, the tensions and social fractures implicit in an unjust institution were illuminated in all their stark actuality through circumstances that allowed the workings of the subconscious to be manifested at the level of exterior behaviour. It will be sufficient to conclude that the violence of the manifestation is itself testimony to the immense tensions and indeed hatreds that girded the slave trade and guided the behaviour of both its promulgators and its victims.

Those crew members who had survived were by now secreted in the Constapelskamer, barricaded against the slaves who had assumed control of their vessel. There is a rather gory interlude, during which the slaves captured sailors who had secreted themselves in the rigging and, after binding them, stabbed most of them to death. Of the five who remained, three were hurled overboard after the slaves, led by Massavana, cast lots to decide their fate. Rijk Meyer, who was able to swim, managed to grab on to a rope dangling from a window of the Constapelskamer, and, avoiding the shots of the slaves, was pulled up to rejoin his fellows.

As one could imagine, the crew were in a rather desperate state regarding food and water supplies. There were now approximately 30 crew members in the Constapelskamer 1, and they were forced to subsist on raw bacon and potatoes and a cask of arak. The situation was beginning to look bleak, not to mention the increasingly obvious evidence of the inability of the slaves to sail the ship; and, after a failed attempt on Wednesday 19th to gain food supplies, things were coming to a head. It was at this stage that the crew began to debate the options open to them, a course of action that, perhaps as much to their surprise as to that of anybody else, was to instigate a series of events culminating in their regaining of their liberty.

The skipper advocated a course of violent resistance. It was now Thursday, and Muller was of the opinion that the crew should arm themselves, break out of the Constapelskamer and retake the vessel. The sailors evidently possessed some arms in their refuge, weapons that must either have been stored there or which the sailors must have been carrying at the time of their dramatic flight to the Constapelskamer. Muller himself, due to his injury, was rather conveniently not in the position to include himself in the planned offensive, as was Gulik. Despite the obvious seriousness of his wound, it is fascinating to note, perhaps too cynically, Muller’s reticence to directly command any offensive against the mutinous slaves who had successfully overrun a vessel under his command. By now, one can begin to observe such behaviour as sadly characteristic of the man. His lack of vigilance and decisive leadership had created an atmosphere on his ship that had resulted in what must be, apart from complete destruction of the vessel, the worst possible disaster that he would have been able to imagine; and now he advocated a plan of violent resistance in which he refused to play a direct role. The ineptitude and, for lack of a better word, passivity of Muller becomes all the more apparent as the narrative continues.

The armed assault was a complete failure. A Bootsman (Bo’sun) Laurens Pieters had volunteered to lead a group of armed sailors in the wake of Muller’s and Gulik’s professed incapacity to do so; and they proceeded out of the Constapelskamer, shooting at any slave within sight. The slaves fought back; Pieters was brought down, followed by another sailor, both of whom were left on the deck; and another sailor, wounded but having managed to retreat with his fellow combatants back to their refuge, died surrounded by his fellows. Twelve sailors had engaged in the mission; the only outcome was that the remnant of the crew was now three men poorer for their exertions.

Faced with the loss of three of their men, the crew of the Meermin were not to be deterred. Instead of retiring, they hit upon an even more outrageous plan. Again with the affirmation of the captain, they placed some gunpowder beyond the Constapelskamer with the intention of igniting it, and thereby terrifying the mutinous slaves into submission. This plan was to meet with a similarly dismal end to that which had preceded it. Sleigh claims that a Bootsman Gulik was burnt in the face, to the extent that he was blind. Gulik’s testimony does refer to his being burned by the fire when the gunpowder was ignited; however, the extent to which he was injured is not altogether clear, or whether any blinding or disfigurement was permanent. It therefore seems likely that Sleigh denoted Gulik with the incorrect rank at this point in his narrative. Certainly, one gets a sense that Gulik was enduring more than his fair share of hardship, and one cannot help but entertain the notion that at this moment he might have considered himself better off lying at the bottom of the sea with his erstwhile contemporaries. He must have expressed his unhappiness with the way events had turned out, for this course of action was ultimately abandoned. Such a heightened atmosphere of tension must have affected the crew, who probably saw their repeated attempts at intimidation as endangering their chances of survival to an even greater extent than the danger to which they had previously been subjected. Needless to say, the failure of both these operations had impressed their true condition on the collective consciousness of the crew and officers. Gunfights and explosions having led to no significant improvement in their condition, the only option remaining was the humiliating, but potentially life-saving course of negotiation.

The crew were in possession of a slave woman who they had conveniently retained when barricading themselves in the Constapelskamer; the Dutch had assigned a number of female slaves to the Constapelskamer when loading the slaves in Madagascar, and it is clear that a number of these had remained under their authority after the uprising. This slave woman was to become the primary instrument of negotiation between the sailors and the mutinous slaves. The crew were evidently not yet willing to enter into negotiations that would accede to the reality of their situation; rather, they initiated proceedings with a perhaps not untypical stream of threats and demands. Their experience with the gunpowder having met with a certain degree of success, a fact that the upper hierarchy as represented by Gulik was only too aware, the sailors demanded the immediate surrender of the slaves. They threatened that, in the absence of such a surrender, they would proceed to blow the ship up with their gunpowder. The evident absurdity of this threat was obviously not lost on the slaves, who had been witness to the crew’s distinct discomfort at the result of their pyrotechnic experiment. Calling their bluff, they answered that they had viewed the fear that the explosion had instilled in the sailors, and were not prepared to do what was requested of them. Nevertheless, for all their bluster and mock bravado, the crew had embarked on a course of action that would ultimately save their lives. The slaves wanted to negotiate; the opportunity for deceit and manipulation was near at hand.

At this stage we are witness to a shift in overt leadership, a shift that will further illuminate the tensions among the officer base. It has been noted that both Gesaghebber Muller and Onderstuurman Gulik had been injured; both were severely incapacitated, to the extent that they were unable to exert any form of capable leadership. Any active contribution to the sailors’ preservation would have to be undertaken by another, a man more capable than his superiors in both body and mind, in securing the confidence of both the crew and the slaves to reach some kind of settlement.

It is thus that Adsistent Olof Leij enters the frame of action as a major player. Sleigh refers to him as a clerk, while certain subsequent references would indicate that he was some kind of Commies, associated with Crause, who had been employed in the capacity of slave purchase and management. He would thus have been already personally acquainted with the slaves; as such, he would have been the most capable candidate in the eyes of the sailors to undertake complex and indeed disastrous negotiations of this nature. The sailors would have been fully aware that this was an operation in which their lives were at stake; they had failed to defeat the mutineers violently, and the slaves had called their rather unconvincing bluff. One of Leij’s skills was that he spoke a smattering of Malagasy, the rudiments of which he must have picked up in the course of his career as a slave procurer. The only possibility for obtaining life and liberty were thus secured in his hands, as he was assigned the unenviable task of negotiating for his and his compatriots lives with those whose possession he had negotiated only a few days previously. This time, he was in a less comfortable position in the negotiation process than that which his previous experience would have enabled him to grow accustomed to.

Leij tends to be a narrator who is rather sparing on the details, and he does not accord significant detail in his testimony to the nature of the negotiations that he conducted with the slaves. What he is clear about, and what is reiterated by other sources, is the demands that the slaves placed on the crew in return for their security. The slaves wanted to be returned to Madagascar, to the shores of the island that they still considered to be their home. This was their demand. The rage that had been unleashed when circumstances enabled it had faded somewhat; and while the slaves must have felt something a little more intense than animosity towards their one-time captors, they now evidently saw the preservation of the enemy’s lives as a tool that they could employ to their benefit. Looking beyond their immediate anger and rage, they saw cooperation with the crew as their best chance of going home, and of reversing the terrible misfortune that had befallen them. Hence their willingness, on witnessing the botched attempts of the sailors to regain the vessel and their subsequent helplessness, to enter into an agreement.

There would no doubt have been a subconscious desire on the part of all the slaves to return to their place of origin and escape the destiny of lifelong servitude that awaited them at their destination; indeed, Sleigh refers to Massavana as possessing a distinct, articulated desire to obtain some means of returning to Madagascar. As one of the identified leaders of the mutiny, Massavana would no doubt have been at the forefront of these negotiations, where he most probably would have articulated the collective desire on the part of the slaves to return to Madagascar. The slaves made a number of demands of Leij; they instructed the crew to return them to their own land, and furthermore they instructed that the entire must bring themselves on deck, carrying with them their entire store of gunpowder, and that the gunpowder be them thrown overboard. Leij relayed this series of demands to Muller; and, exhibiting some measure of decisiveness at last, Muller hit upon the opportunity for deceit that presented itself to him. It had already pressed itself upon the crew that the slaves possessed little in the way of seafaring or navigational skills; and it would not have appeared outrageous to consider the slaves incapable of being able to locate their position within the wide expanse of the ocean. Hence, the possibility to deceive the slaves into thinking they were being taken home, while actually sailing for a place of refuge that would be more hospitable to the Dutch than to the Malagasies was finally given expression, at this juncture, by Muller. Once the sailors were in the position to regain control of their vessel, even though under the orders of the mutineers, they were to set a course of N.W., one that they estimated would take them to a place of refuge beyond Cape Agulhas, in a vicinity of the Cape with a Company presence 2. What they had been unable to accomplish through force, the crew were to secure with deceit.

It would appear that Leij assumed a measure of command over the crew on deck, while nominally under the authority of the leader of the slaves. (As will be examined later, the leader of the mutineers is killed on the beach near Cape Agulhas, where he was shot dead by a commando; he remains nameless in the historical record.) With instructions relayed to him from the Gesaghebber, Leij instructed the Stuurman (helmsman) on the course to set; they set sail in a northwesterly direction, in the hope of coming across some land. Sleigh records that Leij was required to ask the leader of the mutineers for approval for any decision he wished to take on deck; the slaves had evidently instituted a structure of authority on board, and assumed a level of control that stands in stark contrast to that of Muller. It must have been a source of some delight to the slave leaders to so visibly exert such authority over their former captors; but, apart from whatever enjoyment it may have instilled in them, it is clear that they had organised an internal system of authority and order, and were determined to assume control in such a way as to prevent any reversal to their fortunes. Had it not been for their evident ignorance in the field of maritime navigation, one gets the sense that the sailors would not have been able to pull of their ruse so easily. It was, in many ways, largely a matter of a technical expertise lacking among the mutineers that enabled the sailors to undermine their intentions; had such expertise been more evenly balanced, the outcome of the rebellion would have been far different, entailing vastly dissimilar fates for the protagonists of the conflict.

Leij was also gradually replacing Muller as the authority in the sailors’ hierarchy. While accepting Muller’s guidance, particularly in the practice of the deceit (a deceit for which he is ultimately as responsible as is Muller), it was now he who issued directives and who assigned both crew and slaves to their particular tasks. Muller’s authority was gradually being undermined, although not overtly but rather through a cooperative arrangement, a kind of coalition of the willing, stemming more from Muller’s own incapacity to lead than from any attempt on Leij’s part to usurp his authority; and the sailors, who had been subject to Muller’s ineptitude, could very well have appreciated an injection of decisive, capable leadership on the part of Leij.

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