Captain Menkenveld had wanted to raise anchor much earlier than May 8th. The delay was caused by an accident with the boat, which capsized on May 2 in the dangerous surf off the coast of Elmina, on the poles placed there as breakwaters. The carpenters, still sick from their stay in Chama, immediately left the ship to repair the boat ashore. The vessel was absolutely necessary for bringing the vital water supplies on board for the middle passage. Normally, local inhabitants would bring water to the ship with canoes, but The Unity had been denied this service – for good reason.
Captain Menkenveld valued order highly on board the ship. He had forbidden his crew from allowing any kind of contact between the enslaved Africans on board and the local Africans who brought food and water to the ship by canoe. According to first mate Pruijmelaar the captain had already declared on the Windward Coast that it was strictly forbidden “to allow the canoe negroes to talk to our slaves, because we had not mastered the negroe language fully enough to know what passed between them”.
After two enslaved African men had disappeared from the ship on April 22, the captain wrote a letter to his first mate, then on board The Unity, from Elmina. He again ordered him not to allow any ‘remadoors of the water canoe’ to talk to the prisoners, and also to make sure that these local Africans were not scaring the prisoners. (In general, the enslaved Africans believed that the Europeans would eat them.)
Food and Tobacco
In addition, the captain wanted to prevent the local Africans from trading food or goods for the tobacco; to the enslaved Africans tobacco and pipes were handed out aboard. When such trade did take place, the situation could quickly get out of hand. According to the first mate: “Yes, it even happened that the free negroes, even when warned several times, went to the slaves with fish and other foods which the slaves bought. They were in in such danger that they would have lost their lives if they had not received help from the officers and ship’s folk”.
The crew of The Unit had therefore been warned, but it still went wrong. The result was that no African could be convinced to bring water to the ship. So what had happened?
On Thursday April 28, 1762, the coopers put together the last water barrel, when three Africans neared the ship by canoe. They had come to pick up the empty water barrels. Pruijmelaar was watching while the sailors Jan Eward and Otto Wesman loaded the barrels into the canoe.
Six of the barrels had been stored when the first mate saw that the Africans from the canoe were trading food for tobacco with the prisoners who were sitting on the ship’s gunwale. Not hesitating for a moment, he went to the canoe to take the tobacco back. Arriving on the waiste deck, he could descent down the ladder to the canoe, after having “knocked away the slaves who were sitting on the edge of the board with a whip”.
Pruijmelaar was carrying a ‘boeremcingel’ for that – probably a weighted rope, as can be deduced from his own description: “…his is often used and taken in hand on a slave ship to castigate the slaves if they hit each other or wrangle, which happens often”.
Red With Blood
On seeing the first mate coming with the ‘boerecingel’, the three Africans quickly jumped out of the canoe and into the water, laughing at Pruijmelaar from the edge of the canoe. Suddenly, a shark took hold of one of them, dragging the unfortunate man underwater. The water turned red from all the blood. On seeing it, Pruijmelaar promptly forgot about the tobacco and returned back on board The Unity.
Surgeon Couperus, who had seen Pruimelaar board the canoe, had continued his work on the waist deck, where he was bandaging enslaved Africans, until he suddenly heard someone call out: “A shark ate one of the negroes”. Couperus looked out across the gunwale again, but apparently only saw “a lung” drifting, which was then also eaten by sharks.
The two remaining Africans rowed back to shore as quickly as possible, without waiting for the rest of the empty barrels, or the reward of a bottle of liquor.
Declaration of the Crew
After Menkenveld had come back on board, he had all the crew who had witnessed the event draw up a declaration of it. This declaration was handed over to the director-general of the WIC in Elmina, David Pieter Erasmi. The captain was trying to protect himself and his crew against possible damage claims. The declaration clearly showed that Pruijmelaar had not touched the African in anyway – The Unity was therefore not guilty.