South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926



Our speaker on 10 October 2013 was fellow-member Dr Dan Sleigh, the distinguished historian and author who was recently decorated with the Order of Oranje Nassau by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands for his outstanding contribution to the recording of the history of the Dutch East India Company.

Dr Sleigh introduced his illustrated talk on the violent uprising which took place on the Dutch East India Company hooker Meermin in February 1766 by explaining why the use of slaves in the Cape was necessary. The Cape was a refreshment station used by the Dutch to supply fresh meat and vegetables to their ships plying the route from Holland to the Indies and back.

The company was a commercial venture whose resources were always over-extended. Most of their always scarce resources were put to use in the Indies and they had used slaves there prior to the establishment of their refreshment station at the Cape. At the Cape labourers were required to cut, dig out and move timber for firewood and construction, to build buildings, for fishing, sealing and whaling, for salt works, brick-manufacturing, farming, gardening and for domestic work.

Dr Sleigh showed us drawings of the Company’s gardens at Cape Town and Newlands and explained that meat, vegetables and fruit were needed for the crews of the Company’s ships, the garrison of some 600 men, the officials in Cape Town and the 57 outstations. He explained how important a steady supply of timber was for construction in that pre-industrial age and as firewood. Wood-cutting denuded the area near the mouth of the Salt River to such an extent that the South Easter blew so much sand into the sea that the beach line was extended into Table Bay by 1 metre per annum.

The manpower at the Cape was never sufficient and the use of slaves was, at the time, the solution to the problem. Slaves were obtained in the Dutch East Indies, Madagascar and from Arabs in Zanzibar. They were transported in Company ships. Our speaker showed us a drawing of the Meermin (Dutch for Mermaid), a type of vessel known as a hooker, which operated as a slave ship between Madagascar and the Cape. She was built and launched in Amsterdam in 1760. She had three masts, was square-rigged, 33,5m (110 feet) long with a beam of 10,4m (34 feet) and was manned by a crew of 56. Dr Sleigh also showed us plans of the ships boats, one of which was a sail driven launch.

During the Cape winter gales, Company ships spent their winter months in the safer anchorage of Simon’s Bay. This is where the Meermin prepared for her voyage to Madagascar, loading trade goods, food, water and firewood.

Her officers included the Captain, 1st Mate, 2nd Mate and 3rd Mate. She also carried a doctor, shipwright, sail maker, smith and gunner as warrant officers. Before leaving Simon’s Bay, her Captain Jan Theunisz handed over command to Gerd Muller, who received all the ship’s papers including the very detailed instructions regarding the control over the slaves and their treatment.

Our speaker pointed out the main rules, which were as follows:

- Slaves were to be shackled and kept below, with men and women separated.
- They were allowed on deck in small numbers only to prevent any disturbances.
- Their shackles were to be checked daily and they were to be searched for hidden weapons.
- Armed guards were to be placed at the hatchways and loaded firearms were to be kept at hand if needed.

The Meermin left Simon’s Bay on 23 May 1765 for Tulear in Madagascar. Here the captain met the local King and Queen where the trade goods (including guns, gold and liquor) that the company’s men brought along, were exchanged for slaves. These included unwanted wives among others! This was the normal practice – local rulers sold their own people to the slavers! The King presented Capt Muller with a number of locally-made swords. Having loaded 140 slaves, Meermin then set off on the return voyage to the Cape on 20 January 1766.

Dr Sleigh showed us a map of the route followed by the ship to and from Madagascar. Capt Muller did not follow his instructions very carefully and, on 18 February 1766, he ordered the slaves who were walking on the deck to clean and sharpen the swords which had been presented to him by the king. Their leader, one Masafaan, gave the signal and the slaves attacked the watch on deck, killing the 1st Mate, doctor and seven sailors. Some of the crew sought safety up the foremast from where they hurled the primitive hand grenades stored there, at the slaves. These missiles were, however, largely ineffectual as they were avoided with ease by the flight-footed slaves.

Some members of the crew who survived the slaughter on the deck, escaped by climbing down the rudder and through a porthole into the Gunroom, where they were safe, but had to spend the next few days without food or water. On the fourth day, the crew attempted to recapture the ship, armed with pistols and cutlasses, but they were not successful and lost five men killed or died of wounds. The captain was seriously injured and incapacitated. Third Mate Gulic then decided to scare the slaves by exploding half a barrel of gunpowder. In so doing his face and hands were badly burnt. He then threatened to blow up the ship. Midshipman Leij negotiated with the slaves and a truce was concluded.

Only three members of the morning watch had survived and the slaves made them sail the ship back to Madagascar but, knowing nothing of navigation, they did not realise that the seamen continued to steer towards the Cape, during the period from 21 February to 23 February. On 23 February 1766, they sighted land and, at midnight 24 February, they Meermin dropped anchor in Struys Bay.

Some of the slaves went ashore in the ships boats, so dividing their force. The crew then rose against the remaining slaves out of sight of the beach and many slaves were killed and others taken prisoner. The slave leader Rijsaaka and four others then paddled to the beach to reconnoitre. They saw herdsmen and thought that they were back in Madagascar. On 26 February news that Meermin had anchored in Struys Bay reached Secretary Mentz in Swellendam. He called up the local Commando and headed for Struys Bay. A day later, the news reached Stellenbosch and Landdrost Le Sueur called up his Commando and advised the Council of Policy in Cape Town.

The Council of Policy sent soldiers in the company ships Neptunus and Snelheijd to Struys Bay on the 28 February. The captured slaves were sent overland under escort to Cape Town and Landdrost Le Sueur took command on 3 March. A bottle thrown overboard and containing a letter from the embattled crew washed ashore and fortuitously was found, asking that three signal fires be lit. This was done and the Meermin’s anchor cable was cut by the surviving crew members, which set the ship adrift, and it subsequently ran aground on the beach. The cooper, Rijk Meijer, swam ashore and met with Landdrost Le Sueur, advising him of the state of affairs on the Meermin. The slave leader and others paddled ashore with the cook, Lubbers, and the slaves were fired on by the commando. The slave leader was killed with others and renewed fighting broke out on the ship and the rest of the slaves surrendered.

On Sunday 9 March provisional repairs were completed and the rest of the crew came ashore. The remaining slaves disembarked on the 10th and, on 17 March, the Neptunus and Snelheijd arrived. Landdrost Le Sueur handed over command to Secretary Mentz and returned to Stellenbosch.

From the 8th to the 10th of April 1766, the auction of the hull and contents of the Meermin and her flotsam and jetsam was held at Struys Bay. These items included copper pots, lanterns, candlesticks, etc. Our speaker explained that good timber was very scarce at the time so the wreck was broken up and the wood turned into tables and all types of furniture, as well as building material, by the local farmers.

The slaves appeared before the Court of Justice at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town. In terms of Roman Dutch Law rebellion against his master by a slave was a capital offence. At the trial, the Court heard the sad tale of Masafaan who had been a successful farmer in Madagascar until he was summoned to meet his king at Tulear. There he was stripped, beaten and bound and sold into slavery to the Dutch. He wept when he recalled his children. In view of these mitigating circumstances, Masafaan was not executed but was sent to Robben Island to make lime from sea shells, to be used in buildings such as the Castle. He died a few years later.

The captain of the Meermin, Gerd Muller, was found guilty of infringement of the regulations relating to the transportation of slaves. He was sent back to Holland where he forfeited his pension and other benefits. He died not long afterwards. Slides of the various court documents were shown by our speaker, who also showed photographs of the splendid model of the Meermin built by Brian Donnelly for the VOC Foundation and which is now on display in the Old Slave Lodge (S A Cultural History Museum) at the top of Adderley Street, in Cape Town.

Commander Bisset thanked Dr Sleigh for bringing another chapter of our early Cape history – an aspect that went unrecorded until now - so vividly alive. He reminded the audience that our speaker had given us many other fascinating talks since joining the Cape Town Branch in 1977. He thanked Dr Sleigh on his pioneering work and presented him with the customary gift.


We welcome Mr and Mrs J M Hobbs who joined the society this month and hope to see them at our future meetings.


Members who indicated that they would like to purchase a copy of Dr Sleigh’s book, The Taking of the Slaver Meermin, are reminded that copies will be available at the next meeting. Price: R180,00

The book Sporting Soldiers - South African Troops at Play during World War I by Prof. Floris van der Merwe is now on sale. Prof Van der Merwe has liaised with the chairman and will make copies available to be on sale to members at the next meeting of the Cape Town Branch.

With the advent of the centenary of the First World War (WWI) in 2014, the timely appearance of “Sporting Soldiers” will tie in nicely with the society’s planned lecture series during the WWI centenary period It definitely will find a worthy niche in the ranks of the expected surge of centenary writing about WWI, and will certainly appeal to those interested in military history.

“Professor Floris van der Merwe has a long professional career as an accomplished scholar of sport in history. “Sporting Soldiers” is his research in book form about sport in the British and South African Forces during World War One. His wonderful ability to evoke the social world of his historical subjects, using incidents and episodes to enable readers to relive the small enjoyments, frustrations and sporting triumphs of his subjects. Photographs, graphic representations and other visual imagery are used, that adds seamlessly to the narrative.

The book comprehensively covers the Great War from a South African perspective, starting with the position of the Union of South Africa in the overall context of WWI. The chapter on South African prisoners of war is the first comprehensive coverage of this topic to be published. His incisive feel for the role of depressive forces, such as ‘Barbed-Wire Disease’, social class, colonial identities and racial segregation for example, shows how his study covers more than just sport.

It is clear how important sport and organised recreational activities were as a release from the stress and strain of war. With “Sporting Soldiers”, scholars and lay persons alike can learn more about it.” [Extract from a review by Prof W.R. “Bill” Nasson of Stellenbosch University.]

Price: R195,00

Forthcoming Meetings:


The 11th of November is traditionally “Poppy Day” and dates back to the commemoration of the fallen of World War One. How did this tradition originate, what is it all about and what happens behind the scenes? The red remembrance poppy has become a familiar emblem of Remembrance Day due to the poem "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae.* The use of the poppy to symbolize the fallen dates back to ancient times where legend had it that the flower only proliferates wherever blood had been spilt in battle. The current Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC, preceded by the Imperial War Graves Commission, formed in 1917) whose principal function is to mark, record and maintain the graves, and places of commemoration of Commonwealth of Nations military service members who died in the two World Wars. Gen Del Monte recently attended the reburial of the remains of SA Scottish soldiers recovered from the battlefields of Ypres, which he will also cover in the lecture.

This month’s talk will form the inaugural lecture of the planned series of lectures of the Cape Town branch to coincide with the centenary of the First World War. The South African Military History Society has planned a programme of lectures to be presented by all four branches countrywide, in the course of 2014-2018, to commemorate the battles, soldiers and civilians who participated in this tumultuous event. The arrangement is that at least two lectures a year will be devoted to the First World War over the next four years.

* The story of John McCrae and his well-known poem will be the subject of a lecture in the near future.

DECEMBER: No meeting as the Cape Town Branch will be in recess.


(Please note that the January meeting always takes place on the THIRD THURSDAY of the month due to the festive season/school holidays)

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /