Secrets of The Dead: Slave Ship Mutiny
Narrator: Hidden in these tattered books is a story about one man’s fight for freedom.
His battle took place nearly 250 years ago, on a slave ship bound for Cape Town, South Africa.
A free man named Massavana… enslaved through deception… and determined to return to his home any way he can, seizes a notorious Dutch slave ship.
Onboard, a life and death struggle between slaves and sailors takes place.
There can only be one victor.
Today, the ship lies buried under these waves at Cape Agulhas, the southern-most tip of Africa.
This slave ship mutiny has been largely forgotten.
But now, three people are uncovering these remarkable events and learning the story of Massavana, the man now being hailed as one of South Africa’s first freedom fighters.
Professor Nigel Worden studies the history of Cape Town under Dutch rule and is researching how and why the rebellion happened.
Slave descendent Lucy Campbell wants to know: who Cape Town’s slave ancestors were… and how they struggled for their freedom.
And marine archaeologist Jaco Boshoff is hunting for the remains of the slave ship at the heart of this story.
It was called: The Meermin
It sailed from Madagascar in January 1766 with more than one hundred and forty enslaved people aboard.
This would be its final voyage.
Today, Cape Town, South Africa is a thriving city whose residents can trace their ancestry back to far-flung countries all around the Indian Ocean.
However, most residents have ancestors who were brought to the Cape against their will, as slaves.
Cape Town was founded in 1652, to supply food and water for the merchant ships of the Dutch East India Company, also known as the VOC.
It was a company town and the VOC wanted to keep it that way.
Commerce was king.
Prof. Nigel Worden: The VOC was a commercial company – but it was also a government – it was a state within a state, if you like – it had been given the authority, by the States’ General in the Netherlands to, to rule – to, to run law, to make treaties, to declare wars, as well as to trade – so it was much more than just a trading company.
Prof. Nigel Worden: In the Cape, it had total power – it was THE state – and it had the right of life and death over, over all of the inhabitants of the colony.
Narrator: The historic documents of the VOC are held in Cape Town’s Provincial Archives.
Here, 30 miles of documents hold the secrets of life in Cape Town’s slave society – and why the Meermin was bringing slaves here.
Prof. Nigel Worden: They did not want a settler colony here at the Cape – they didn’t want lots of immigrants coming in – that would have been expensive for them – they, they didn’t want people to establish themselves as independent farmers – and instead, therefore, encouraging immigrants, they turned to slave labour.
The VOC brought 63,000 people to Cape Town as slaves, beginning in 1658.
They came from all around the Indian Ocean: from eastern Africa, through India, to Indonesia.
Slavery continued until 1838.
Until then , as Cape Town expanded, its free citizens purchased slaves for domestic labor.
Cape Town became a slave society.
Now, their descendents want to know their history. None more so than heritage activist Lucy Campbell.
Lucy Campbell: When slaves came to the Cape, their names were changed – if it was a name like Sangora, or Massavana, and they arrived in Cape Town say on February 15th – or September – they would have been named September – the month when they arrived. Just like to indicate to you – there’s September
Lucy Campbell: Look at all these names – thousands of them – thousands of them… look at all the February’s you see here – all these are names of slaves that were brought to the Cape.
A lot of the people in Cape Town – I would say even the majority of the people in Cape Town – are slave descendants, whether they are White, whether they are Black – or whether they are so–called Coloured.
Narrator: By 1766, Cape Town had grown into a sizeable settlement, with more than 7,000 inhabitants – two-thirds of them slaves.
Keeping so many people under control required constant supervision and coercion. Even the architecture of a typical Cape Town house was designed to control slaves.
This is Koopman de Wet house. Now a museum, it once housed a family of 13 Europeans – the De Wet family – and their 26 slaves.
Lucy Campbell: This house would have been a very – house of a very wealthy owner that would have had slaves – and the house was built specifically around slaves, because without slaves, there, they couldn’t function. They couldn’t function at all. So this would have been the centre or the domain of the mistress of the house. The mistress of the house could watch over the slaves outside and they could, she could watch, uh slaves coming up and down from the steps.
Lucy Campbell: There would be, a, been an eye on them at all times – whatever they did – there was an eye on them and the weird thing is, is that there was not physical control – but there was the psychological control – where the, the master or the mistress didn’t have to use physical abuse – but the mental slavery was, is the psychological slavery.
Lucy Campbell: A slave was at the mercy of the master – at all times – a master could, ask anything of that slave – brush my shoes – put on my shirt – carry this, carry that – come lay with me – they could basically ask for anything, because the master owned that slave – that slave was a commodity.
Narrator: The slave ship Meermin transported this commodity.
Its sailors would give tribal kings guns and gunpowder in exchange for people.
On January 20, 1766, the ship sets sail from Betisboka Bay in western Madagascar.
Its heading is for Cape Town.
Three crewmembers will play critical roles in what is about to happen …
Gerrit Muller is the ship’s captain. This is his first time running a slave ship.
Chief Merchant Johann Krause is in charge of the VOC’s cargo of slaves.
Krause has been on slave journeys to Madagascar before … and so has his assistant Olaf Leij.
Prof. Nigel Worden: The Meermin story, is indeed, one of the most remarkable of the whole of the period of slavery at the Cape – although it is relatively little–known about, in, both in South Africa or outside it –but what is particularly extraordinary is that we have records of that – we have the very words of the people who participated in that.
The Dutch East India Company was an incredibly bureaucratic organisation – and it must have been hell to work for – it recorded everything.
Narrator: Those words were recorded when the survivors of the Meermin shipwreck were brought to Cape Town and questioned by the VOC’s very own Court of Justice.
Prof. Nigel Worden: And one thing we know is that Muller was only recently appointed as a Captain – he hadn’t had much experience of being on a slave ship – whereas Krause had. And all the way through the records we see Krause reminding Muller who is in fact his superior – that actually he knows a lot more about how to sail a slave ship than, than Muller does.
So Muller’s authority is being rather undermined by, by Krause. This younger man, but nonetheless a man who has more experience of this.
Narrator: This struggle over leadership will compromise the Dutch crew.
The VOC preferred to import children to work in Cape Town – they survived the voyages better than adults … and would provide more labor over the course of their lives.
The average age of an imported slave was just sixteen.
The true face of slavery can be seen in photos of slave children taken from Madagascar in 1868.
The children were rescued when a British naval vessel intercepted the slave ship.
The photos have attracted the attention of South Africa’s leading human rights advocate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu: They remind one so very much of pictures out of the holocaust – Belsen and things of that sort, just showing our inhumanity to, to one another.
We have bandied about that word ‘slavery’, not always aware of just how inhumane the conditions were.
Narrator: Beginning in the 15th century, slave ships took more than 12 million people out of Africa. The vast majority went to the Americas.
Those ships are the research subject of marine archaeologist Jaco Boshoff.
If he can find the Meermin, it will be one of only a few such vessels discovered.
Jaco Boshoff: The important thing about it is that she was a slave vessel, and then the fact that there was a rebellion on board, and that’s the main reason why she got wrecked. Also – we do not know too much about these vessels that the Dutch East India Company used at the Cape, for slavery.
Narrator: This coastline is called the graveyard of shipwrecks. More than two hundred boats lie buried here. The lack of oxygen under the seabed should preserve the Meermin wreck … But where is it?
Jaco Boshoff: We know that the Meermin does not have a lot of material left on it because a lot of it was taken off at the time when she wrecked. So it is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack, underwater and on, under sand.
Narrator: The most effective way to find it is by locating any iron-based artifacts that went down with the wooden ship.
This crop duster is equipped with highly sensitive magnetometry sensors, which can penetrate through ocean water and beach sand.
If any iron remains of the Meermin are here, they will leave a magnetic trace.
Jaco Boshoff: We’re very fortunate in the fact that we’ve got this ship’s plan of the Meermin which we found was in the scheepvaartmuseum, in Amsterdam.
It will guide us towards what the size of the vessel was, how wide it was, how many ribs did it have.
A vessel like this obviously made largely out of timber – would have used oak. So oak is something that we’re looking for and then the fastenings would have been metal – would have been iron, so there’s a lot of iron there and that’s what we’re hoping to pick up with the magnetometer.
Narrator: In the end, it will be the slaves who determine the fate of the Meermin.
Their chains do not prevent them from choosing leaders for their rebellion.
Even before the ship sets sail, one man leads an escape attempt but fails.
His name is Massavana. He is from the village of Toulier in western Madagascar. He has many supporters, including a strong fighter named Koesaaij.
Koesaaij’s experience on board the Meermin was later recorded in detail by the VOC.
Now Lucy Campbell wants to read this first-hand account of a free man turned slave.
Prof. Nigel Worden: I gather you want to know about Massavana, and what we can find out about him. What is really exciting is that here we have the cross–examination of Massavana – at his trial.
And here he is – Massavana van Madagascar, age about 26 years old, so he was, we know that he was 26. And he’s asked questions about what happened on the, on board the ship but also he gives details about how he came to be sold as a slave.
Massavana: My name is Massavana. I was asked by the King of Toulier to visit the Dutch ship.
Massavana: We went to view this ship. I was dressed in clean clothes, with gold and silver ornaments. When this was done, halfway back, the King tied me up, and his people undressed me – they took my gold, silver and clothes off my body – and they sold me – as a slave.
Narrator: Scattered around Cape Town are the remains of old slave lodges, where the memories of the city’s slave history can still be experienced.
Lucy Campbell: Before the, the Europeans came to Madagascar – the Madagascans – they fought amongst each other – those that won these battles used to take slaves as spoils of war. And they used to sell these slaves to those, to the Europeans. So now there was a market for them and the King took advantage of this. And this is how they started – it became a regular thing, and it became a trading post for the Europeans and for the Madagascans to trade in slaves.
Narrator: Most of the slaves purchased by the VOC would remain the property of the company.
But Cape Town also had traders who provided private individuals with slaves.
A typical slave would cost the equivalent of two oxen and a cart.
Lucy Campbell: You are just a, a commodity. You can’t think. You can’t say anything. You have to be quiet at all times. So what I am going to be doing is, I am going to be selling you. Now remember there’s going to be people standing there. They are the buyers and they’re going to bid for you. So now I want you to come forward.
I am going to be looking for: Can he hear properly? Can he see? Do you have all your teeth? Have you got strong muscles? And that’s why it’s important that I have a strong slave, because what’s the use then, for me to buy him? If you can’t work for me? I’m going to have me this slave. He’s perfect, he’s young, he is strong enough and he can work for me – long hours – can carry wood – can carry water – and we can have lots of other slaves.
Narrator: The Meermin has a 4-week journey from Madagascar to Cape Town at the height of summer.
Temperatures can exceed 100 degrees.
The misery below deck is almost unimaginable.
It is a nightmarish voyage.
Archaeologist Jaco Boshoff is conducting a detailed study of the Meermin blueprints to create an accurate 3D, computer graphic model of the slave ship.
Knowing the architecture of the ship will help him understand how the rebellion happened.
Jaco Boshoff: The vessel was about 30, 30–odd meters long, so that’s quite small – they, they didn’t want to have a big vessel because it costs more money.
Narrator: The Meermin was a multipurpose cargo vessel outfitted in Amsterdam in 1761 to carry slaves.
When sailing on a slaving voyage, more than 200 people would be crammed on board.
Sixty of them would be sailors whose cabins were at the bow.
The officers were based toward the stern, with the captain’s cabin built under the quarterdeck.
Below this is the gunroom, where ample supplies of guns and gunpowder were kept to trade for slaves.
If the vessel was following VOC rules, no sign of the human cargo would be permitted on the top deck.
They would be kept below.
They were expected to remain here for the course of the month-long journey.
Jaco Boshoff: These people would be shackled up in the slave deck. So we’d have rows of people two, two – shackled – and they would often have one long chain running the whole length to get as many slaves in as possible.
Look, remember in the 18th Century there, there, there was no human rights – human rights didn’t exist.
Narrator: There would be little light… All the gun hatches are sealed up to prevent slaves from escaping.
Only two small portals provide ventilation for the slaves.
Jaco Boshoff: In fact some of these vessels you couldn’t light a candle, because the air was so stuffy and rotten.
Narrator: Nigel Worden is investigating just how many people were enslaved on the Meermin.
One of the puzzling things about some of these sources is that the numbers of slaves onboard the ship don’t add up. You could say that that was bad memory – but I think there’s something else going on here. We know that onboard all VOC vessels – certainly the Captain and the higher officers were carrying goods which they were not declaring to the company – and they were selling off privately themselves. This is how most slaves actually got to the Cape.
Prof. Nigel Worden: And in this case, what I think is clearly happening is that they’ve got more slaves than they’ve officially admitted to the company and they’re hoping that they’re going to be able to sell them off privately, themselves, when they get to Cape Town.
And of course the consequence of this is that the, you know people like Muller and Krause, are desperate to cram as many slaves onboard the ship as they can, more so than they’re declaring – which means that there’s going to be overcrowding, desperate overcrowding as a result.
Jaco Boshoff: The consequence that you get, is disease, you’d get things like dysentery, typhus and things like that, that would break out under conditions like this and you’ve had some of these vessels with large amounts of deaths.
The Meermin’s survivors later testify to the VOC that
disease was rife on their ship too.
Slaves were dying…
And disease was spreading.
Lucy Campbell: I think the situation in the deck was very volatile with the smell and the stench and the – that sickness – because there was disease also underneath that ship.
The Dutch were scared that something was going to happen, they were going to die and they were going to lose their commodity.
Narrator: Two days into the voyage, Krause makes a fatal decision, according to Captain Muller’s testimony for the VOC.
Gerrit Muller: Krause strongly requested that the slaves be freed from their shackles. And that we should let them loose on the ship.
Prof. Nigel Worden: When your cargo is spices – or material goods being brought from Asia – which most of the ships were carrying – then it was in the interests of both of them to keep them safe and to keep the ship sailing, but when your cargo are human beings, and the issue is their health and keeping them alive, and by bringing them up onboard the deck – which Krause did – it’s actually endangering the security of the ship – then you’ve got a division of interests between the two of them.
Prof. Nigel Worden: So, you know, here we have Muller saying that Krause had said that on all his other journeys, he’d let the slaves free from their chains – so he never had anything to fear from them.
Gerrit Muller: I did not want to give permission for this, but the surgeon said there were no medicines on board to prevent illness – and that the crew was also starting to suffer.
Jaco Boshoff: The Captains’ authority was to do with the vessel itself – sailing the vessel, so in essence, the head Merchant had a, had a lot of influence in terms of what happens to the slaves – on the vessel.
Gerrit Muller: Krause told me that if the slaves became ill and if some of them died, it would be my responsibility. I agreed that some slaves could be freed.
Narrator: It is a critical decision: It plays right into the hands of the slaves.
Massavana: The slaves planned for a long time to become masters of the ship. Our aim was to go back to our own country.
Lucy Campbell: I think underneath the deck, they believed that they were going to take over the ship because they were free man, men in their mentality; they were not mentally enslaved – at that point – yet.
They were strong men that believed that they were going to be free, even though they were in chains and in shackles.
Massavana: We were ordered to work on the ship. We often pulled ropes. We worked with the sails.
Narrator: Putting the slaves to work makes the journey easier for the sailors – something they could get used to.
Olaf Leij: Krause told me it was not dangerous to unshackle the slaves. From time to time thereafter more slaves were freed.
Jaco Boshoff: You’ve got all the ammunition, if you will, for an explosive situation – all the elements are there – basically all you needed was a trigger – and, and that trigger was supplied – by the Senior Merchant, funny enough – the man who, who was the greediest of the lot.
Olaf Leij: It was February the 18th. Sailor Harmen Korps was ordered to fetch the assegais and swords to be cleaned.
Narrator: Assegais are traditional weapons of war from Madagascar… spears.
Jaco Boshoff: But what the Dutch often forgot, in, certainly in the case of the Meermin story – is that the Malagasies was a war–like people, so you would have characters on board this vessel that inherently wanted to break free.
Massavana: It was morning. A sailor brought the assegais to us. Six in total.
Olaf Leij: Krause was laughing and said “I’m sure there are people who would doubt the wisdom of asking slaves to clean these weapons.”
Lucy Campbell: I can’t believe that the, that they actually did it – I mean how could you, how can you give slaves weapons?
Lucy Campbell: At that point they didn’t think that the slaves would have, would do it. Because a slave doesn’t think.A slave don’t make decisions. A slave doesn’t have an opinion. A slave is property.
Massavana: The slaves had 4 assegais in our possession when the battle started.
Massavana: We all attacked at the same time.
Olaf Leij: And suddenly I heard screaming and groaning of some of the crew.
Massavana: Krause was stabbed in his chest and also his belly. He fell down dead immediately.
Massavana: Several sailors fled into the maintop. Three of them were thrown overboard.
Gerrit Muller: Then I started running to the cabin. I was then stabbed in my left side – I received another two stabs in my back. All these wounds were inflicted on me by Massavana.
Narrator: The captain isn’t safe in his cabin. The slaves could break through the door at any moment. So he climbs out the port window and slides down the rudder to the gunroom.
Up on deck, the slaves take possession of the muskets.
Massavana: We decided to do everything possible to become masters of the ship. Even if we had to stay at the sea a long time.
Lucy Campbell: I think he actually did surprise himself.
In that few hours, he conquered the mighty VOC – and he took over that ship.
Narrator: Thirty sailors are killed in the uprising – stabbed, shot or thrown overboard.
The survivors barricade themselves in the gunroom, below deck.
The thirty remaining sailors have only a sack of potatoes, some raw bacon and a cask of palm wine to fortify their nerves.
They know they can’t remain here for long … they need food… they need to regain control of their ship.
Jaco Boshoff: Now these guys are sitting at the back, there’s very little supplies in the area where they are because most of the supplies would have been kept up front – and for them to get to that they would have had to run the gauntlet – with all these slaves – which is quite difficult and obviously, and they did try that and they – you know the slaves would be shooting down from the hatches.
Olaf Leij: The slaves moved around the hatch and threatened to jump to the lower deck – they shot down at the crew, who returned fire. At 8 am on the third day the sailors made a sally against the slaves.
Gerrit Muller: The mate was killed, and another man was also shot dead.
Olaf Leij: And two more sailors died of their wounds a few days later.
Jaco Boshoff: OK, so now you, you had the slaves in control, but they weren’t quite fully in control – the reason being that they were now in charge of a machine, that they didn’t know how to operate and this is the ship – they didn’t, didn’t know how to sail the vessel.
Narrator: By now the Meermin is drifting aimlessly, hundreds of miles from land.
The sailors are desperate…
Olaf Leij: The ships mate brought up a barrel containing 25 pounds of gunpowder. He took this upstairs and lit it with the purpose of frightening the slaves.
Narrator: The plan fails … but it does get the slaves’ attention.
Olaf Leij: A female slave was asked to tell them that the sailors would blow up the whole deck with all the slaves if they would not surrender themselves, and to offer them a peace proposal. The slaves agreed and asked to see me.
Narrator: Olaf Leij is able to speak to the slaves in their native tongue.
Prof. Nigel Worden: Olaf Leij is really left in charge of things, because Krause’s now dead – Muller is still sick and unable to take any control.
Olaf Leij: They told me they should be taken back to their own country and to throw the gunpowder overboard.
Gerrit Muller: Leij told the slaves that we would not throw the gunpowder overboard – but we would take the slaves back to their own country, Madagascar. In this manner peace was made.
Narrator: A deal is made.
But Olaf Leij and his captain plan on having the last laugh.
They have no intention of taking the slaves back to their homeland.
Gerrit Muller: I gave instructions that the ship should set course in the direction of Cape Town.
Olaf Leij: The Captain instructed me to set a course to North-Northwest in order to get near land.
Prof. Nigel Worden: They agree that they will take the slaves back to Madagascar, by sailing, by sailing East – but in fact, they sail the ship North-West – and therefore the ship’s going in the opposite direction.
Narrator: The deception is a breathtaking gamble.
Returning to Madagascar means losing the VOC’s precious cargo.
But sailing to Cape Town might mean losing their lives if their plan is discovered.
Prof. Nigel Worden: It is a very risky strategy, first of all they really don’t know just how much, the slaves and Massavana would know about currents – and where they are and…
Narrator: The north-northwest heading the captain sets will take the ship straight to the southernmost tip of Africa – the graveyard of shipwrecks.
It’s been two weeks since Boshoff’s magnetometry survey. He now has the results.
Jaco Boshoff: This blue band represents the flight path of the aircraft that carried the magnetometers, and what it shows us are these anomalies, the red dots, that you can see – like that one for instance, is a fishing trawler that we know of – but what’s more interesting are the smaller ones that you cannot see so clearly – that are very likely to be the Meermin, because she was a smaller ship – and wooden, and has, has broken up over the years, obviously – so we are really interested in those.
Narrator: Of course, these sites are all underwater. Boshoff wants to sail out into the bay to see for himself where the slave ship drama played out.
Ten days after the mutiny, the Meermin sails into view of land, near the Dutch settlement of Struisbaai.
Most of the slaves think they are home.
But Massavana has doubts.
Prof. Nigel Worden: But then, as it’s described here, the leader asks Leij why he had not taken them to their country – and how did he know this? Well he knew this because the Sun wasn’t rising in his face – in other words they weren’t facing East as they should have been.
And Leij who has been rumbled of course at this point, with fairly quick wits, perhaps, said well they’re on the East side of Madagascar – then the leader points out something else…
Gerrit Muller: A number of birds were seen – and the slaves said that one couldn’t find such birds on Madagascar.
Prof. Nigel Worden: And Leij then comes up with this answer…
Well these are the kinds of birds that are found on small islands lying off the coast of Madagascar and were typical of the ones which wouldn’t have been found on the West coast. I think there’s no doubt that if we put ourselves – or try to put ourselves in the minds of the slaves and of Massavana – they might have realised that – or suspected that something’s gone wrong here – but on the other hand at last they’ve seen land – and they’re hoping against hope that freedom is going to be theirs’ at last.
Jaco Boshoff: One could probably think of the Malagasies on the – on the ship, thinking that this might be Madagascar – excitement – you know – finally after so many days – getting off the stinking tub – and being excited and you have the sailors on the other sense – also being excited – but for a different reason – because they know they’re at the Cape Agulhas and they know that salvation is at hand for them.
Narrator: Dropping anchor a mile offshore, the beleaguered Meermin will now draw a new group of characters into its story.
Local farmers notice the ship’s flag is not flying – a sign of distress. A report of a suspect ship is immediately sent to the VOC’s head official for the area, Johannes Le Sueur.
Prof. Nigel Worden: I think Le Sueur, the magistrate in Stellenbosch is the key figure here. He has to go there – it is part of his, part of his district – this enormous district to the colony – and Agulhus is not Cape Town – he’s in a very remote part of the colony – there are not troops around him so he’s on his own there.
Narrator: Le Sueur knows he must contain the slave rebellion. After all, the VOC is running a slave society.
News of a successful slave revolt could send panic through the colony and empower more slaves to take up arms.
Olaf Leij: The next morning the slaves demanded to go to the shore in a rowboat. As many as possible boarded. The boat would return after the slaves landed ashore.
Narrator: Everyone agrees the slaves will light three bonfires on the beach if it is Madagascar.
Prof. Nigel Worden: Now Leij’s playing a very cunning game here – he’s trying to outwit the slaves at their own game – as it were. But of course he’s a very desperate man because he knows that once those slaves get ashore and discover they’re not in Madagascar, and if they get back to the ship and report that back to Massavana and the others, all hell is going to break loose – and they’re going to have their throats cut.
Narrator: By the time the Malagasy arrive on shore, the local farmers are waiting – they have formed a militia.
Fifteen slaves are killed, the rest put back in chains.
From his position on the Meermin, Massavana cannot see the massacre on the beach.
He is waiting for the bonfires.
Johannes Le Sueur arrives in Struisbaai two days after the Meermin was spotted. He quickly takes charge of the situation on shore.
For 3 more days, Massavana and the others desperately wait for the bonfire signal.
In the gunroom, the sailors’ situation is reaching a crisis point.
Gerrit Muller: Leij came to tell me that it wouldn’t be long before the slaves would break through the hold and get to the gun powder room. We could not stay at anchor any longer.
Narrator: Leij pours out his concerns in a letter.
Prof. Nigel Worden: This is the letter that, which comes from Leij which he had written, sort of cooped up in this, in this room and one has the sort of notion of him writing this in a rather cramped handwriting, and see here the handwriting is extremely erratic – and it’s a letter of desperation.
Olaf Leij: Through the guidance of our Almighty and beloved God, the 140 male and female slaves which we exchanged at Madagascar have revolted and taken over the Meermin. About 70 of them went ashore with the boat but at least 50 have remained on board. 32 of the Europeans are still alive, but most of them are wounded. The slaves are in control of the whole ship, except for the gunroom, to which we have fled.
Prof. Nigel Worden: One of the most extraordinary things in this, in this extremely extraordinary case is the story of this bottle and what happened to it.
Olaf Leij: We are scared the slaves may attack and kill us at any moment. We continually pray to our Lord for His mercy and that He may rescue us from our miserable plight.
Prof. Nigel Worden: This is a man who is facing the fact that he’s about to meet his maker. He believes he’s going to die. And his only hope is to be able to hope that by throwing the bottle overboard, somebody’s going to find it – and the authorities are going to come to their rescue.
Prof. Nigel Worden: If you wrote this up in a novel, nobody would believe it, but it actually happened. It happened like this.
Prof. Nigel Worden: And what happens this bottle is found by this Khoi woman who is on the shore – and she takes it to the authorities and who’s the authority – it just happens to be the Landdrost of Stellenbosch who’s there.
Olaf Leij: Although we trust in the Lord to save us we kindly request the finder of this letter to light three fires on the beach and stand guard at these behind the dunes, should the ship run aground, so that the slaves may not become aware that this is a Christian country.
They will certainly kill us if they establish that we made them believe that this is their country.
In the name of the Lord we remain your obedient servant. Olaf Leij.
Prof. Nigel Worden: So Le Sueur is in a real dilemma. He’s got to decide what to do, you know, either way he’s taking a big risk – and he’s taking a risk for – in the one case – perhaps – the future of the colony, one might say, certainly the dangers of slaves running amok on land – on the other hand he runs the risk of losing the cargo, losing the ship and I suspect as a result, he would have lost his job – and probably a great deal more, as well.So in the end, what does he decide to do? He takes the risk. He’ll light the fires.
Narrator: A week after arriving at Struisbaai, the slaves finally see the signal they are waiting for.
Massavana: Madagascar! [LAUGHTER]
Narrator: They are eager to get ashore. The weather is in their favor, high winds and currents push the ship closer and closer to shore.
Olaf Leij: The vessel drifted towards the beach. To avoid disaster it was decided to beach the ship. In strong seas the ship would have been smashed up and no souls would have been saved.
Gerrit Muller: When the ship touched ground I gave the order to cut the main mast.
Narrator: The first group of slaves goes ashore in the one remaining rowboat.
Le Sueur positions his home-grown militia out of sight, behind the dunes. He has orders from Cape Town to recapture the slaves, but not harm them. But he quickly loses control of the nervous farmers.
Olaf Leij: They were attacked near the dunes and shot at.
Narrator: Finally, Massavana and his countrymen realize they’ve been deceived.
They know they will never return home.
Lucy Campbell: I think it must have been a moment of distress – a moment of pain knowing that this is the end, that I’m going to be taken.
Narrator: 19 days after taking over the Meerman, Massavana and his countrymen give up their struggle.
They are taken to Cape Town immediately. The Meermin is left behind to sink into the ocean.
Furious about their financial loss, the VOC Court of Justice puts both the slave leaders and the sailors on trial.
The VOC has a severe punishment for any slave who attacks his master: death by impalement on a stake.
Prof. Nigel Worden: The end of the trial – this record that we’ve got of all the trial – you would expect that the result of this would be that Massavana would receive the most gruesome kind of death sentence – which is what happened to slaves who’d revolted against their owners or against the company and you would also expect that Muller, who is also put on trial – for negligence – would perhaps have got a – you know – a mild punishment or a ticking off, but it’s really Massavana who would have got the, the full force of the law.
Absolutely the opposite happens.
Narrator: Gerrit Muller is stripped of his captain’s rank and wages, and forbidden from serving in the VOC for the remainder of his life.
He is banned from the Cape, and put on the first ship returning to Amsterdam – on which he must work for his passage.
He is fined one month’s wages and ordered to pay the costs of the case.
And despite all his efforts, Olaf Leij is also fired from the VOC.
As assistant chief merchant, he was expected to have obeyed company rules.
Prof. Nigel Worden: All through the trial, Massavana denies some of the key things that he’s been accused of. I get the sense of him as a very forceful man. Look, look at these answers he gives to some of the questions, you know, is it not the case that you had planned to do this and to, and to attack the Europeans.
NO! Exclamation mark, you know, he’s, he’s forceful…
Lucy Campbell: Defiant.
Prof. Nigel Worden: Defiant, exactly.
Prof. Nigel Worden: It’s not possible for the Court to have enough definitive evidence to be able to, to execute him.
It was very important that you had somebody who could provide definitive evidence against someone in a trial – whose, who were honourable men. Trustworthy men. There weren’t many of these around in this trial. So really the company is caught in its own, in its own legal laws here. And these are the words they use – “definitiewe vonnisse”, they haven’t got definitive enough evidence in order to be able to pass a death sentence on him. And instead they are going to place him, provisionally, they are going to ban him to Robben Island.
Prof. Nigel Worden: What I think is particularly moving is that he signs right at the end here – there! He signs with his, his mark – his cross. He makes the sign of a cross. This is the one mark in this huge archive which Massavana himself left, directly on the page.
Narrator: Massavana’s story doesn’t end here. Nigel Worden has discovered one more document in the vast VOC archive.
Prof. Nigel Worden: So, these are the registers of the people who were sent to Robben Island – and as you see this is in 1766, so the year just, just after his trial. Massavana from Madagascar – sentenced at the Cape on the 25th of August – and there he is – it says – see here the people who had arrived – and there’s Massavana, together with Koesaaij. The two of them. What to me is the moving part – it gives the, the details of everybody else, of how long they’ve been sentenced for on the island – 5 years, 15 years – but for Massavana and Koesaaij it says: “Put on the island until further instructions” – so they’re dumped there at the mercy of the court to decide how long they’re going to stay there – there’s no termination to this.
Massavana: In our country if somebody kills a person, the King will find the murderer. I am an imprisoned man, and only a slave. And you can do with me what you want.
Narrator: For centuries, Robben Island was used to imprison troublesome rebel leaders including its most famous resident—Nelson Mandela.
Massavana was in good company.
Prof. Nigel Worden: And then four years later, we get the news here that Massavana has died on the 20th of December, 1769, just over 3 years he lived on the island and then died as a company slave.
Narrator: Robben Island was where people were sent to be forgotten. But Massavana’s memory as a freedom fighter lives on.
Jaco Boshoff: It does show people that resistance to oppression is, is not a new thing. It’s part of history.
Narrator: It’s what keeps Boshoff searching for the wreck of the Meermin.
Jaco Boshoff: Someone asked a famous mountaineer at one stage “why do you climb mountains?”, and he said because it’s there. And I think it’s in a sense similar. I think the wreck is there. We need to find it.
Narrator: He is now ready to begin the next phase of the Meermin story, to find the wreck itself.
As for the VOC, it went bankrupt in 1798, due to rampant corruption.
For Lucy Campbell, Massavana’s mutiny was a triumph. He never made it home, but he did destroy the slave ship Meermin.
Lucy Campbell: The fact that he, that boat the Meermin will never ever sail again for me is a celebration, that they will never carry human cargo, that, the Meermin is a wreck.
Narrator: Massavana’s co-leader, Koesaaij, survived 20 years here. Both men are buried on Robben Island.
Lucy Campbell: I would like to believe he is here, but here is so many unmarked graves it could be anyone. But for me the memory of Massavana will always live on. Because I have gotten to know Massavana. And this memory I will carry over from generation to generation. For me he is here somewhere, and for me he is amongst the heroes of all heroes.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu: It says something about human beings that there is something in us that refuses to be, to be regarded, as less than human. We are created for freedom. That’s why slavery is going to fail ultimately. That is why injustice fails, ultimately. Oppression fails, ultimately
Narrator: Massavana was just one of tens of thousands of enslaved people whose lives were recorded in this vast archive.
An unlikely hero who simply wanted to return home, he is now remembered for his fight for freedom.