Researchers poised to uncover slave ship secrets

The Dutch slave ship Meermin ran aground off the southern Cape coast 236 years ago after an on-board rebellion was almost victorious—now researchers are poised to find her secrets.

“It is the beginning of a larger project to find different slave wrecks around the South African coastline,” said Meermin project manager Jaco Boshoff, a maritime archaeologist attached to Iziko Museums.

The ship’s last moments are a researcher’s dream: bottled messages were surreptitiously slipped into the sea and the rebellion of 140 slaves-to-be quelled before the Meermin ran aground.

Boshoff said the first of three project phases would kick off on May 18, with a four-day expedition conducting a series of preliminary tests using a land and marine magnetometer, a device measuring the earth’s magnetic field and which registers anomalies such as canons and other metal objects, to help map the exact location of the shipwreck.

“Once we have found the wreck, the second phase kicks in and will see limited excavation where we will open up sections of the wreck and take selected artefacts,” said Boshoff of the R1,6-million Lotto-funded project.

The third phase would entail the dissemination of information, including a museum exhibition, workshops and the development of a CD Rom on the Meermin for educational use.

If a wreck is found, Boshoff and his team will have to work methodically using a vacuum-like water dredge to clear the wreck area and bring up artefacts.

The project team intends surveying an area one kilometre on either side of the Heuningnes River near the De Mond Nature Reserve, near Stuisbaai.

He said archaeologists were hoping to find artefacts such as copper, cloth, beads and other common items such as plates and wine bottles.

“The Dutch had access to the wreck for a week after… and removed a lot of trade goods such as copper, cloth and beads… [but] there might still be some left, and we are hoping to find chains and shackles… as well as one or two Madagascan-type spears,” said Boshoff, saying that archival material indicated that a stash of indigenous weapons had been collected from Madagascar and was used during the uprising.

Boshoff said a direct consequence of the project was setting up a properly equipped “conservation lab” in Cape Town to treat sea artefacts as they were brought to the surface, something that was lacking presently.

Boshoff said they were optimistic the wreck would be found, given the fact that she was not lost in a storm, researchers had a fairly good idea of her location and she was not lost in deep water, but ran aground relatively close inshore.

“From experience of other wrecks in the area, the wreck is probably covered up with sand which would protect the organic material… the top section will be missing, but we hope it will be well-preserved from the waterline down,” he said.

The initial plan, scrapped because of financial restraints, was to have the Meermin’s secrets unearthed and a model built by 2002, to coincide with quadricentennial celebrations of the establishment of the Dutch East India Company in 1602

“I think this wreck will be a bit of an icon… if found it will be the first slave shipwreck found off the South African coast,” said Boshoff.

Boshoff said as part of the larger three-year project of locating slave shipwrecks, attempts would be made later to also locate the French slave ship La Cybelle which went down off Milnerton in 1756 with slaves from Senegal, and the Portuguese vessel St Jose, which went down off Camps Bay in 1794 with slaves from Mozambique.

The Meermin was a three mast “Hoeker” built in Amsterdam in 1759.

She left Madagascar on January 20, 1766 with 140 slaves. A few days out the slaves seized an opportune moment and revolted, taking over the ship and killing half the crew. However, they could not sail the vessel and reached an agreement with the other sailors to head for Madagascar.
During daytime, the sailors took this course, but at night sailed for Cape Agulhas.

The slaves sent two boats full of people ashore to ascertain whether the land they saw was Madagascar, but they were captured by local farmers, leaving the ship offshore, but without means of reaching the shore.

The ship was at anchor for seven to eight days before some slaves went ashore in a newly-built small craft. They found a black sheep herder who ran away on seeing them, convincing them the land was Madagascar.

They returned to the ship. After hearing the news and seeing signal fires, which the Dutch captain had surreptitiously asked for by sending bottled messages to farmers, the slaves went ashore.

They were accosted by the local farmers, and when those remaining on board saw this, they attacked the crew. The captain ordered his men to chop through the anchor cable and the ship drifted towards the shore and ran aground. - Sapa

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