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In shipwrecks, new clues to a buried past

By Megan LindowContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 29, 2004


In 1766, somewhere between Madagascar and South Africa, a drama unfolded on the Dutch ship Meermin that is getting renewed attention today.

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Dutch sailors handed their guns to a group of slaves for cleaning. Instead, the Madagascans used the weapons to attack. After killing half the crew, the story goes, the slaves realized that they couldn't sail back to Madagascar themselves, so they kept the remaining sailors alive to navigate.

At night, though, the crew surreptitiously reset their course for Cape Town, South Africa. When the Meermin finally dropped anchor in a shallow, sandy bay, some Madagascans ventured ashore - believing themselves to be home free - and were attacked by local farmers. Those on board realized they had been duped and fought the sailors. But the captain cut the anchor, and the Meermin drifted toward the beach and lodged itself in the sand. The Madagascans surrendered, and were hauled off to the slave markets in Cape Town.

Now, more than 200 years later, maritime archaeologist Jaco Boshoff has begun searching a windswept stretch of South Africa's coastline for the wreck of the Meermin and what he hopes will be physical evidence of the global slave trade. It represents a new kind of research.

Despite its indelible legacy, slavery has left behind a surprisingly scanty archaeological record and, in South Africa particularly, little written history. By finding artifacts aboard the Meermin and the wrecks of slave ships off the coasts of Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States, researchers hope to set the record straight. They are already beginning to fill in the gaps and gain new insights into a history that has long been suppressed.

"It's a trend, and also a new field," says Mr. Boshoff, who works for Iziko Museums in Cape Town. "We want to look at how visible slaves would be on a wreck."

The Meermin is the first of several slave wrecks off the South African coast that researchers plan to locate. Others include La Cybele, a French ship carrying slaves from Senegal that sank near Cape Town in 1756, and the Portuguese vessel St. José, which sank in 1794 with a cargo of slaves from Mozambique. Boshoff believes that the French ship was bound for Mauritius, and the Portuguese ship for the Americas.

International comparisons

The wrecks all occurred within the same 50-year period, and within relatively close proximity to one another. If all the ships are found, researchers will have a rare opportunity to draw comparisons between the conditions aboard the vessels of three different slave-trading nations carrying captives from three different regions of Africa.

South Africa's colonial history has deep roots in the slave trade. In the days of the Dutch- controlled Cape Colony, slaves brought over from Sumatra, Madagascar, and other far-flung places once outnumbered free citizens, but their histories have long been neglected. Their enormous economic contributions were finally acknowledged by a new democratic government in the 1990s.

But now there is surging interest among South Africans in rediscovering their multicultural roots. The city of Cape Town is littered with sites linked to slavery, says Dr. Gabeba Abrahams-Braybrook, projects manager of Iziko: Slave Lodge, a museum housed in what used to be the slave quarters of the Dutch East India Company. Until now, however, there has been little public involvement in reconstructing the experiences of slaves.

Researchers are hoping to change this through projects like the Meermin. Once a cultural museum focusing mainly on the experience of white settlers, the slave lodge is being converted into a monument to its original inhabitants.