Posted: November 7th, 2010
Slave Ship Mutiny
About This Episode

Buried off the waters of Africa’s southernmost coast is the slave ship Meermin, whose fatal voyage tells a lost chapter in the history of the salve trade and one of South Africa’s first freedom fighters: Massavana. The story began nearly 250 years ago in late January 1766, when the Meermin set sail from Madagascar carrying slaves to South Africa. Chained and crammed so tightly below deck they almost could not move was a human cargo bound for the Cape Town colony of Dutch East India Company (VOC). But in a dramatic twist of fate, the ship never made it to its final destination. Instead, one man, who refused to become a slave, led his fellow prisoners in a mutiny and took over the ship. They then ordered the Dutch crew to sail them back home to freedom. But the experienced Dutch sailors deceived the slaves and steered the boat towards Cape Town anyway. When the slaves realized what had happened, a bloody battle with militia on shore left the surviving slaves captives again and the Meermin a sinking wreck. The final chapter of this affair took place in the Dutch court in Cape Town and it is the record of that trial that allows us to tell this story today. The extraordinary outcome saw 26 year-old mutiny leader Massavana spared execution for lack of evidence although he was effectively imprisoned for life. The two top officers were order dismissed for incompetence. The story is told on THIRTEEN’s Secrets of the Dead’s premiere of Slave Ship Mutiny, airing nationally Wednesday, November 10, 2010 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Narrated by actor Liev Schreiber (Salt and X-Men Origins: Wolverine), the film tracks the efforts of marine archaeologist Jaco Boshoff, historian Nigel Worden and slave descendent Lucy Campbell to discover the full story of this historic event. With the help of detailed VOC archives and court transcripts, they learn what happened on the Meermin, how the slaves were able to overpower their captors, and why the ship ended up wrecked on a wild, windswept beach 200 miles east of Cape Town. An additional interview with South Africa’s leading human rights advocate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu adds context to the story.

Preview this episode:

Based on survivor accounts, Slave Ship Mutiny re-enacts the incredible events that led to Meermin’s mutiny and shipwreck. Three pivotal characters who contributed to its downfall were first-time slave ship captain Gerrit Muller, chief merchant Johann Krause and his assistant Olaf Leij. As an experienced shipmaster, Krause undermined Muller’s authority. To prevent slaves from dying and spreading diseases in the overcrowded cargo space, he convinced the captain to unshackle the slaves and have them do chores above deck. This was strictly against VOC policies. Krause believed, as a slave master, he was intellectually superior to his human properties and could control them on deck. In a shocking act of boldness, he ordered the slaves to clean Malagasy spears he picked up as souvenirs from Madagascar. As soon as the weapons were handed to the slaves, Massavana and his fellow men seized the opportunity and started a violent revolt against the sailors. The bloody brawl left Muller badly injured and Krause dead. Leij was left in charge of the beleaguered crew instructed by Massavana to sail back to Madagascar which they didn’t. Instead, they sailed towards the Dutch settlement Struisbaai. Doubting Leij, Massavana sent his men to light three bonfires on shore to confirm it was their country. Desperate for help, Leij sent a bottled message which was miraculously received by Johannes La Sueur, magistrate of the settlement. La Sueur lit the smoke signals and cobbled together a make-shift militia of nervous farmers to recapture the rebel slaves with blundering success. Eventually, the confrontation ended with the wrecked Meermin aground, never to sail again.

Looking back, the rulings of the VOC Court of Justice were a huge step in the recognition of oppressed people as free-thinking individuals. Leij was fired from VOC and Muller was stripped of his captain duties and sent back to Amsterdam. Massavana was sentenced at the mercy of the court to be imprisoned on Robben Island, where he died three years later.

From 1658 to 1838, VOC imported an estimated 63,000 slaves into the Cape colony and millions more to North and South America. Massavana was just one of them. His struggle serves as a reminder of that era and his act of defiance encapsulated the indomitable human spirit that still resonates today.

THIRTEEN’s Secrets of the Dead: Slave Ship Mutiny is an Off the Fence production for THIRTEEN in association with ARTE and WNET.ORG for PBS. Joe Kennedy is Writer/Producer. Nic Young and Joe Kennedy are Directors. Katharina Pechel is Producer. Ellen Windemuth is Executive Producer for Off the Fence. Hélène Coldefy is Executive Producer for ARTE. Jared Lipworth is Executive Producer. William R. Grant is Executive Producer of Secrets of the Dead.

  • Timothy A Kiehl

    When will this be aired?

  • Afriqua Blue

    check the broadcast schedule at the top of the page. it will give the stations and times in your area. here in my area, it will be on tonight, wednesday, november 10, at 8:00 p.m.

  • Amir Bengali

    Full Episode Online

  • jackie

    what site can i see the full episode on???

  • kate

    thank you for the episode.

  • Aldo Gonzalez

    Masabana Prince of Madagascar
    Aldo P. Gonzalez, 2010

    Masabana was a prince
    Of Madagascar’s west
    The King’ ambassador
    In strength, the best
    When the Dutch sailed in
    The king chose Masabana
    At the shore to stand
    To welcome them in
    But the Dutch wanted slaves
    And discarded the reception
    For the Cape’s slave trade
    Masabana they imprisoned
    The Dutch took all
    Children, women and men
    And set on the long haul
    Back to the Cape again
    But in the long voyage
    The Madagascans arose
    Masabana their leader
    Their freedom imposed
    The Dutch sailors were stabbed
    The ship’s cargo rejoiced
    Only the officers remained
    In to the gun room coerced
    But a sailor Masabana is not
    The ship in the waves it drifts
    As the Madagascans sleep
    Their home in the horizon sinks

    Masabana was a prince
    And of his people the best
    He told the wife which
    Spoke Dutch the best:
    “Tell the Dutch to steer us back
    To Madagascar our home”
    And I will spare the knife
    I will leave them alone
    The Dutch Captain felt blessed
    For in this request he saw
    The chance to survive this test
    And to the Cape withdraw
    So he lied to Masabana
    His transgressions increased
    He sailed West to the Cape
    For Madagascar was East
    A whole moon was gone
    Before shore would be seen
    Masabana was suspicious
    The Madagascans asleep
    Later next day
    They rejoiced at the sight
    Of the far shore’s trees
    Of the end of their frights
    So they asked their prince:
    If this their true home be

    Masabana was a prince
    And of his people the best
    He called the captain over
    And pointed to the sun at set
    “What Madagascar is this?”
    To the captain he said
    “That in this evening the sun
    Doesn’t set in the west”
    And the Dutch captain
    In the deck stood
    Thinking how to make
    His answer understood
    “Forgive me for in error to
    Madagascar’s east shore I sailed
    But those are your hills
    Which your sun will explore”
    And so the Captain’s ruse worked
    According to plan
    The slave cargo delivered
    To the Cape’s Master’s clan

    Masabana was a prince
    And of his people the best
    He couldn’t set them free
    He could not give them Rest

  • Dre Callender

    Why why why is this not allowed to be seen in the UK’s internet ip address ranges…

    With a film of such immense meaning and not to be seen, to all worldwide is a travisty :(

  • Chris Reyes

    One of the best things I’ve seen on tv in a long time. Very inspiring, educational, & enlightening. Will definitely discuss this episode with others.

  • Sierra Bailey

    A truly amazing story. Thank you for airing it.

  • Koseefowokan

    This was very interesting and educational as I did not know about the Dutch East India Company’s involvement in the slave trade across Africa. However, i have as issue with one comment which describes Malagasy as “war-like” people. Why is it that Europeans often describe a whole country, a whole community as “war-like” as if that was all they were interested in doing, as if they were obsessed with the idea of war? It was disappointing to hear this because it is a characterization that has often been used to describe various African groups. War has existed since the early ages, in various parts of the world. The mere existence of war does not give anyone the right to describe a whole cultural group as “war-like”.

  • http://donnienicole.com/2011/07/18/the-slave-revolt-youve-never-heard-of/ The Slave Revolt You’ve Never Heard Of | Analog Girl In A Digital World

    [...] Read more about The Meermin here: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/24/world/africa/24iht-africa.html and http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/featured/slave-ship-mutiny-about-this-episode/674/ [...]

  • http://discoatemybaby.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/erased-histories/ Erased Histories « PLUG

    [...] accounts of people who went through that harrowing ordeal – or on the freedom fighters, like Massavana, Tula, Bastiaan Carpata, Pedro Wacaaw, who fought back. In essence, by honouring those who have [...]

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    Pretty good post and it captures your anger really well.

  • james

    luck or divine providence?

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  • Albert

    I watched this movie in history class and I thought it was amazing. I’m now doing a project on it and was wondering how many slaves were takin on board at the begginning. Thank You.

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