Tracing a Mutiny by Slaves Off South Africa in 1766

August 24, 2005, New York International

STRUIS BAY, South Africa, Aug. 20 - After years of painstaking research and sophisticated surveys, Jaco Boshoff may be on the verge of a nearly unheard-of discovery: the wreck of a Dutch slave ship that broke apart 239 years ago on this forbidding, windswept coast after a violent revolt by the slaves.

On the other hand, he may have discovered a wire fence covered with beach sand.

Mr. Boshoff, a 39-year-old marine archaeologist with the government-run Iziko Museums, will not find out until he starts digging on this deserted beach on Africa's southernmost point, probably later this year.

After three years of surveys with sensitive magnetometers, he knows, at least, where to look: at a clutch of magnetic abnormalities, three beneath the beach and one beneath the surf, near the mouth of the Heuningries River, where the 450-ton slave ship, the Meermin, ran aground in 1766.

If he is right, it will be a find for the history books - especially if he recovers shackles, spears and iron guns that shed light on how 147 Malagasy slaves seized their captors' vessel, only to be recaptured.

Though European nations shipped millions of slaves from Africa over four centuries, archaeologists estimate that fewer than 10 slave shipwrecks have been found worldwide.

If he is wrong, Mr. Boshoff said in an interview, "I will have a lot of explaining to do."

He will, however, have an excuse. Historical records indicate that at least 30 ships have run aground in the treacherous waters off Struis Bay, the earliest of them in 1673.

Although Mr. Boshoff says he believes beyond doubt that remains of a ship are buried on this beach - the jagged timbers of a wreck are sometimes uncovered during September's spring tides - there is always the prospect that his surveys have found the wrong one.

"Finding shipwrecks is just so difficult in the first place," said Madeleine Burnside, the author of "Spirits of the Passage," a book on the slave trade, and executive director of the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society in Key West, Fla. "Usually - not always - they are located by accident."

Other slave-ship finds have produced compelling historical evidence of both the brutality and the lucrative nature of the slave trade. From the British ship Henrietta Marie, the only slave ship ever excavated in American waters, archeologists recovered 80 sets of iron shackles, cast-iron cannons and pewter mugs.

The Henrietta Marie, discovered in 1972, was partly reconstructed and turned into a popular museum exhibit that toured the United States. Now housed at the Maritime Heritage Society's museum, the exhibit depicts conditions aboard for 190 African slaves who were sold in Jamaica just before the vessel sank 35 miles off Key West around 1700.

Archaeologists who excavated the Henrietta Marie were lucky to find the ship's bell engraved with its name. For Mr. Boshoff, who at every opportunity tramps about on this beach with a global positioning device, a measuring wheel and wooden marking poles, identifying a wreck may be more of challenge.

His best hope of proving that any find is in fact the Meermin, he said, will be to unearth one of the Malagasy spears that records show were carried aboard the ship.

The ship's final voyage is well documented in letters and court records in archives in Cape Town, which are being organized electronically by Andrew Alexander, a University of Cape Town history student who is working with Mr. Boshoff. The documents tell a story rife with folly, trickery, men tossed overboard, bottled messages, rescue ships gone awry and captives-turned-captors-turned-captives once more.

In the end, half of the 60-member Dutch crew and perhaps dozens of slaves were killed. The surviving crew went down in ignominy for losing their ship; the Malagasy slaves met bondage and servitude.

The Dutch East India Company dispatched the three-masted Meermin from Cape Town in December 1765 to buy slaves on the west coast of Madagascar, nearly 1,700 miles away. The growing Dutch settlement at Cape Town relied on slave labor, and the warring tribes on Madagascar were known to trade their captives to European merchants for guns and goods.

In late January, the Meermin left Madagascar with 147 slaves, including some women and children. Fearful the slaves would die in the airless cargo hold, the ship's captain ordered at least some of them unchained and allowed on deck. Another senior officer decided to employ five slaves to clean spears and other weapons that the crew had picked up in Madagascar as souvenirs.

It was a stunningly stupid move. Armed, the slaves killed about half the crew, stabbing them to death or tossing them overboard. Surviving sailors barricaded themselves in the ship's lower quarters, surviving on raw bacon, potatoes and brandy.

Once they realized they could not sail the ship on their own, the Malagasy allowed several crew members on deck to guide them back to Madagascar.

By day, the Dutch headed in the general direction of the island. But at night they steered full sail for Cape Town. By the end of February, they had made it to 90 miles east of Cape Town. Spotting shore, the slaves decided they had reached their homeland and dropped anchor in the bay. Seventy slaves piled into two small boats and headed ashore, promising to light three fires on the beach to signal the others if the land was Madagascar.

They did not get far. Dutch farmers, suspicious of the stationary ship without a flag, had alerted the local magistrate and organized a force of local men to patrol the beach. When the slaves hit shore, they were killed or captured.

For the next week, the Meermin remained at sea while the Malagasy aboard tried to figure out what had happened and the Dutch on shore tried to figure out what to do.

At some point, records indicate, more slaves came ashore in a raft, spotted a black shepherd running away and decided they had reached Madagascar. Their fate is unclear.

Dutch authorities in Cape Town dispatched two rescue ships, but neither managed to find Struis Bay.

The Meermin's officers at sea were trying to communicate with the Dutch on shore by the only method at hand: letters in bottles. Two floated ashore, were retrieved and delivered to the magistrate on March 6. The officers asked for three fires to be lit on the beach to deceive Malagasy into letting the ship come ashore. "Otherwise all will go immediately to their deaths," one letter said.

Another letter advised that the "Neegers" were unaware of their location and could be caught off guard.

The trick worked. The ship sailed toward the beach, hitting a sandbar. Confronted with the Dutch force, the slaves gave up.
For a week, the Dutch authorities worked to retrieve the ship's goods, recovering 286 muskets, 12 pistols, 5 bayonets, compasses and barrels of gunpowder and musket balls. They held an auction on the beach of ship cables, ropes and other less valuable items, then left the broken Meermin to be swallowed up by sand.
Much has transpired on this beach since then. Before the area became part of a nature reserve, fishermen drove up and down it. One farmer erected a fence. Valuable artifacts uncovered by the tides over centuries could now be sitting in someone's garage. When he first saw the vast expanse of sand near the river's mouth, Mr. Boshoff said with a grin, he thought to himself: "Phew! What have I let myself in for."

On the other hand, the sand might have preserved what water would have destroyed. Historical records suggest that the ship went down in or near the river's mouth, narrowing the search for its remains. Mr. Boshoff has also retrieved the ship's original blueprints, which will help him identify its size and shape.

His research is financed by a grant from the South African lottery board, which sometimes uses profits to back heritage projects.

He describes himself affably as "a one-man show." Major potential donors, like the Dutch government, want to see proof of the Meermin's remains before signing on to his project, he said. Eventually he hopes to generate enough interest to search for other slave wrecks in the vicinity, including the French ship Jardinière, which sank 28 years after the Meermin in the same bay.

"This is a long-term thing," he said. "Twenty years, plus."

Mr. Boshoff's field reports dutifully note both his struggles and his strides. His first efforts to find the Meermin involved lashing a magnetometer to a foam surfboard and towing it down the beach behind a 4-by-4 vehicle. The next day, he hammered a six-and-a-half-foot pole into the sand at the points where the device had recorded the presence of metal, hoping to hit something.

"This was a singularly unsuccessful exercise," reads his report of November 2002. Later he determined the device was too rudimentary to register the presence of any metal deeper than five feet or provide accurate readings.

Subsequent surveys from the air and on the ground went better. Last week Anglo-American, the mining and natural resources conglomerate, lent Mr. Boshoff a $40,000 magnetometer and the services of Albert Mandobe, a field assistant. For days Mr. Mandobe painstakingly paced the beach with a nine-foot metal pole strapped to his shoulder while the device recorded each magnetic abnormality as precisely as an electrocardiogram records heartbeats.

The magnetometer's measurements will be used to design a contour map that Mr. Boshoff says will guide excavation. Three sites look promising. The fourth, Mr. Boshoff has concluded, is probably the buried fence.

Success, he predicted, would ultimately be a combination of patience, skill and resources. Plus, he added, a measure of "blind luck."