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South Africans launch search for 18th century VOC ship wreck

‘Meermin’ sank near Capetown

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

CAPETOWN, South Africa - Local reseachers have mounted an expedition to locate the wreck of the Dutch East India trader ‘Meermin’. The slave ship sank off the coast near Capetown in 1766. The Meermin’s fateful journey has been well-documented.

Archeologist Jaco Boshoff is very optimistic of his expedition’s chances to find the wreck. The expedition is well-funded and could sustain itself for three years while looking for other slave ships as well.

The Meermin (Mermaid) was a so-called hoeker of 450 tons, built in 1759 at the Amsterdam Yard for the Amsterdam Chamber of the Dutch East India Company. She was used by VOC’s local authorities at the Cape, which originated as a refreshment station on the way to the Dutch East Indies. They had dispatched the vessel with a crew of over 60, to the island of Madagascar to get slaves needed for work at the colony. Captain Gerrit Christoffel managed to gather ‘human cargo’ of 140 people, both male and female.


On the return trip to the Cape, Christoffel, who had become ill, had the slaves released from their shackles. He also allowed them on deck for chores and to entertain the Meermin’s celebrating crew. Vigilance was further relaxed when the ship neared the Cape. Foolishly, the First Mate in charge even had the slaves clean the crew’s guns and other weaponry.

The slaves seized upon the opportunity, killing a guard before most of the crew barricaded themselves belowdeck or fled into the rigging. Those who had sought refuge amid the sails eventually came down, but were tossed overboard and killed.


With the slaves in control of the deck and the re-maining 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 then detonated some gunpowder, getting the attention of their captors. Negotiations and mutual threats resulted into a deal that the unharmed crew would sail the ship but return the slaves to Madagascar. Seemingly, the crew complied but instead sailed for the Cape. In an attempt to outfox the slaves, the crew sailed one way during the day and another, at a much faster speed, during the night. On the fourth day, the Meermin neared Cape Agulhas. The First Mate convinced the slaves that the landmark was part of Madagascar, and anchor was dropped.


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 anxiously were 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 local Landdrost, the area’s chief magistrate, who caught the meaning and complied to light the fires, further 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 could drift to-wards the ‘shore of Madagascar’. An advance party was captured by the men of the Landdrost, but that was seen by those aboard. They turned on the remaining crew, which had dreaded this possible turn of events. Those on shore could not assist the Dutch sailors.

In the midst of the fighting, the Meermin ran aground on a sandbank. The First Mate 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 into irons again. The crew again 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 stuff ashore, but the ship was more and more engulfed in the sand and eventually was covered after it was battered by the waves and began to break up.

Over 100 slaves eventually were taken to Capetown to be auctioned. As such, the ill-fated journey of the Meermin was not a loss for the VOC which put a higher value on cargo than on the ship.