Slave ship still eludes dogged scientists

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INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS

A scale model of the Meermin on display at the Slave Lodge in Cape Town. Picture: Jeffrey Abrahams

Cape Town - A shark bite to a vital piece of equipment, nearly 250 years having lapsed, and difficult sea conditions. Despite these obstacles, researchers are still intent on trying to find the wreckage of the Meermin slave ship.

On Wednesday, Jaco Boshoff, a marine archaeologist at Iziko Museums, said while extensive searches had been done over the years to try to locate the wreckage, there were four targeted areas that still needed to be looked at.

He admitted, though, that there was “always, as the historians state, a chance that the wreck does not exist any more”.

It is suspected the Meermin was wrecked at Struisbaai.

Boshoff said in one of the more unusual incidents experienced during one of the initial searches for the wreckage, a shark had bit a magnetometer – an instrument used to measure the strength of magnetic fields.

“The shark bite did not affect the search at all – it was an amusing interlude,” he said.

The Meermin, with 140 slaves aboard, left Madagascar on January 20, 1766 and a few days later, the slaves revolted.

They took over the ship and killed half the crew, but because they could not sail the ship alone, they agreed to spare the lives of some sailors if the ship would be sailed back to Madagascar.

However, the Dutch sailed to Cape Agulhas. Eventually the Dutch on land tricked slaves remaining on the ship into coming ashore by firing flares, but the Meermin ran aground.

Boshoff said: “We still have four other targets to look at… At the moment, funding is what is preventing us from completing the search. It is, in a sense, like looking for a needle in a haystack…

“One of our targets is also lying in an extremely difficult position, in that it is in constant surf.”

He said that to look into it a cofferdam, a temporary enclosure, would need to be built, and this was “extremely expensive”.

Boshoff said the search for the Meermin began “tentatively” a decade ago and went on until 2010. An amount of R1.6 million in Lotto funding had been received in 2004 and Boshoff said this had been used until 2010.

“The Lotto funding was not just used for the search, but included several educational workshops for teachers on maritime archaeology and the Meermin story.

“We also did a travelling exhibition that was up at the V&A Waterfront, a South African Museums Association Conference in Gauteng, Bredasdorp Museum and will possibly soon go to the Dias Museum in Mossel Bay,” Boshoff said.

After a survey for the wreck in 2004, he said, two airborne surveys and a number of beach surveys had been done.

The Iziko Museum is showcasing a replica of the Meermin, thanks to the VOC Foundation, which is aimed at preserving the history of the Dutch East India Company. - Cape Times

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