Archaeologist begins search for wreck of slave ship that mutinied

By Meera Selva,Africa Correspondent
Thursday 09 August 2012 02:35

In December 1765, the Dutch East India Company controlled the Meermin and sent it from Cape Town round the tip of South Africa to buy slaves on the west coast of Madagascar, 1,700 miles away. The crew picked up 147 slaves there, and set sail to return home. At sea, the Dutch crew ordered some of the slaves to clean the guns and some spears they had picked up as souvenirs. The quick-witted slaves used the arms to kill half the 60-member crew and ordered the survivors to sail the ship back to Madagascar.

The sailors did as they were ordered by day, but at night they steered the ship back towards Cape Town - at a faster pace. When the boat finally dropped anchor in Cape Town, some of the Madagascans went ashore, only to be overpowered by farmers. The rest remained on board until the ship hit a sandbank and they were captured. The authorities abandoned the damaged Meermin on the sand.

Now Mr Boshoff, who works with the government-run Iziko Museums in Cape Town, believes he can find the remains of the ship. He has already spent three years surveying with magnetometers the area he hopes to dig and is confident that the clutch of magnetic abnormalities near the mouth of the Heuningries River in the Western Cape indicate it is the place. He hopes to find shackles, spears and iron guns that will provide evidence of the battles that took place on board.

At least 30 ships are believed to have run aground in the dangerous waters off Struis Bay, at the southernmost tip of South Africa, but most have never been recovered. Historians often complain that while slavery has left a strong legacy, there has been very little archaeological and written evidence of its history.

The first wreck of a slave ship was found off Key West in Florida in 1972. Divers had initially thought the sunken ship was a Spanish galleon, until they unearthed an ivory tusk - evidence that the ship had carried African cargo. Since then, 10 slave shipwrecks have been found worldwide.

South Africa was for a time the centre of a global slave trade: in the days when the Dutch controlled the Cape, slaves were brought there from Sumatra, Madagascar, and other farflung islands. At one point the number of slaves in the Cape outnumbered free citizens.

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