In January 1766, a Dutch East India Company ship called the Meermin left Madagascar carrying 147 slaves. The conditions were cramped, and the captain was concerned his cargo may not survive the journey, so he allowed some of the slaves on deck. One of the senior officers decided to take advantage and asked five of the slaves to clean some spears that the crew had taken as souvenirs. Handing five of the captives their own weapons went about as well as you’d imagine for the crew, and half of the Dutch sailors were killed. The remainder holed themselves up beneath deck and survived on raw bacon and potatoes.
The newly freed slaves had no idea how to sail the ship. They let out some of the crew members and ordered they return the ship to Madagascar. Instead, the crew covertly sailed towards Cape Town. When land came into view, the slaves were somewhat suspicious. Rather than run the ship ashore, they threw down anchor. Seventy rowed to land, promising to light fires if it was safe for the rest to follow. Unfortunately for the mutineers, the sight of a ship harboured offshore without a flag had made local Dutch farmers suspicious. When the slaves made land, they were met by armed militia, and all were captured or killed.
The Dutch crewmen back on the ship dropped letters in bottles overboard. Among those that reached land was one that read: “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.”
Fires were lit on the shore, and the slaves on the ship took this as the signal. They ordered the Dutch to run the ship aground. When the Meermin got to the beach, it was stormed by armed Dutch, and the remaining slaves were recaptured. The leaders of the uprising, Massavana and Koesaaij, were imprisoned on Robben Island. Koesaaij survived there for 20 years. Less than 200 years later, the same island was used to imprison Nelson Mandela for 18 years.