Slaves Failed Bid for Freedom

A failed bid for freedom on the Meermin:

Under the command of Captain Gerrit Muller, a two-masted coaster, the Meerimin, was dispatched from the Cape in 1765 to purchase slaves in Madagascar. There the merchant Johan Crause bought 140 slaves, while members of the crew traded for spears and other African weapons.

Instead of following the usual practice of keeping them in chains, Cap≠tain Muller decided to put the male slaves to work on board his ship. All went well until the Meermin was just a day or two off Table Bay, when the merchant Crause decided to use some of the slaves to clean his stock of fire≠arms and. spears. Seizing this opportunity for freedom, the slaves turned on the deck crew, killing some of them and driving the rest up the rigging, while about 30 sailors barricaded themselves below deck. The men in the rigging were coaxed down but once on deck were thrown overboard.

The Meermin drifted for two days, the slaves was unable to navigate and the sailors refused to come up. Later, negotiations were started through a female slave after the sailors threatened to destroy the ship with gunpowder. It was agreed that sailors would not be harmed, provided they agreed to return the slaves to Madagascar.

The sailors realizing they would probably be killed on arrival in Madagascar, duly sailed east und reduced sail during the day. By night they crowded on more sail an headed west, somehow maintained this deception for several days until  they came in sight of Cape Agulhas: where they anchored seven kilometers from the shore, telling the slaves that this was Madagascar About 60 slaves, in two boats, set out to investigate, having agreed to light three fires as a signal that this was in deed their home.

Puzzled by the presence of the ship, a number of farmers gathered ashore and when they saw, through a tele≠scope, that the approaching boats were crowded with well-armed blacks, they set off to collect reinforcements. Once ashore, the slaves moved inland but were caught in an ambush and surrendered after a number of them were killed.

The 80 or so slaves still aboard the Meermin waited impatiently for the three signal fires, while the crew nervously wondered what to do next. One of them wrote two messages, asking that three fires be lit, sealed them in bottles, and dropped them overboard. By a stroke of good fortune both messages (one of which is preserved in the Cape Archives) were found and the fires were lit.

The slaves on the Meermin, believing they had indeed returned home, cut the anchor ropes, and the ship began to drift toward the shore. The pace was too slow for some, who launched the last small boat and rowed for the beach, where the farmers promptly surrounded them and one of them was shot. Those aboard the Meermin saw this and the slaves, realizing they had been tricked, turned on the crew.

A battle raged on board for three hours. With both sides exhausted, the shipís mate, Olof Leij, persuaded the slaves that, if they consented to be re-chained, they would not be punished. By the time this was completed, there was no hope of saving the ship, which ran ashore. But all aboard were saved.

Of the original cargo of 140 slaves, 112 reached Cape Town. It is not known whether or not they were punished, but Captain Muller was deprived of his rank and salary and dismissed from the service of the Company. Crause, who had carried Mullerís casual attitude to ridiculous lengths, had been killed in the initial attack. This logbook of the Meermin is kept in the South African Library in Cape Town

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