Stages of the voyage


The third voyage of The Unity took one-and-a-half years: from October 1, 1761 to March 26, 1763. In 1766 the highest ranking crew members received their last bonusses from this voyage. Except for his portion of the bonusses, Menkenveld was also fired due to fraud and malpractice. Among the witnesses against his case were crew members of The Unity’s third voyage. These testimonies provide valuable insight into the captain as a person, and the state of affairs on board the ship under his command. They are therefore important to The Unity’s third voyage. Two other events are also mentioned here: first mate Pruijmelaar’s death in 1767, and the Unity’s last voyage.

Sacked Due to Fraud

After The Unity came back from her third voyage, captain Jan Menkenveld requested leave (minutes 19 April 1763). He wanted to remain at home for six or seven months to rest. The request was honored by the MCC directors. A new captain was therefore needed for The Unity’s fourth voyage, which would depart in autumn: first mate Daniël Pruijmelaar was promoted to captain of The Unity.

Jan Menkenveld remained ashore for about 15 months, after which he accepted a new commission. As captain of the ship Haast u Langzaam (Slow to Haste) he was ordered to conduct a triangle voyage. After a voyage of nearly two years he reached the Westerschelde in March 1766. Close to where The Unity had hit a sandbank in March 1763, in the middle of the river and outside the view of the harbor, Menkenveld unloaded his private trading goods.

However, he was betrayed and ordered to explain himself to the directors.

It has come to the attention of the directors that captain Menkenveld, against his word and instructions, has not stopped himself from taking some cargo with him, thereby greatly disadvantaging the Company in navigation. We are therefore resolved to order Menkenveld to return the gold and other goods, as well as the profits made from these transactions conducted outside the knowledge of this committee, within a certain period of time, and that he shall present himself to answer on all such and points and objections as will be made against him according to his misbehavior by the directors. – Minutes of the MCC directors, March 18, 1766

Menkenveld admitted to private trading and to the breach in contract which that implied. He also admitted that he had secretly discharged these illegal goods, including gold, to another ship in the channel The Deurloo in the Westerschelde.

Nevertheless, he did not give the MCC directors a list of the goods, and also refused to give their value. Instead, he proposed that they keep his salary and bonuses. But that did not satisfy the directors.

At which the meeting concluded with the following:

  1. That the aforementioned Menkenveld would pay a fine of 1000 Flemish pounds to redeem the goods taken, and according to the article of April 30 1721 against the taking of cargo goods
  2. That all his earned wages and bonuses will be kept by the Company
  3. No further use of his services shall be required

Minutes MCC directors, April 15, 1766

Menkenveld received a fine of 1.000 Flemish pounds, or 6.000 guilders (ca € 62.000 in 2018) due to illegal trade. Furthermore, the MCC confiscated all of his wages and bonuses which he had earned with the voyage. And finally, he was fired on the spot.

Captain Menkenveld had been accused by his first mate, with whom he had had problems throughout the voyage. Several crew members, including the surgeon Petrus Couperus and crew member Adriaan de Visser, testified against both the captain the first mate. These archive documents provide a shocking view of the state of affairs on board; several of them have been transcribed and translated:

  • Testimony of the surgeon Petrus Couperus
  • Summary of two testimonies of Adriaan de Visser
  • Testimonies of several other crew members against the first mate Cornelis van Kerkhove

After this dismissal Menkenveld moved to Bergen op Zoom with his wife, where he bought a coffee house called ‘t Molentje (The Little Mill), on the market square. After a decade of running his coffee house, he retired. He died in Bergen op Zoom, about 70 years old.

Forever at Sea

Because of captain Menkenveld’s leave, the MCC directors appointed a new commander for The Unity’s fourth voyage: first mate Daniël Pruijmelaar was promoted to captain, but his first voyage as captain was far from successful. The enslaved Africans on board revolted. He was able to suppress the revolt, but not without loss of life: a number of Africans were killed.

The next voyage would be his last: Pruijmelaar died as captain on board the slaveship Zanggodin (The Goddess of Song). Thanks to a letter of the crew member Adriaan de Visser we know that Daniël Pruijmelaar died on April 7, 1767. Adriaan de Visser had been sailor’s mate during The Unity’s third voyage, but he had been promoted since. With the death of the captain he again climbed up the ranks, as he writes in a letter to his father:

“It is a sad situation here. In the space of three months we have had eight deaths, and  almost all of the rest are sick. (…) captain Daniël Pruijmelaar lost consciousness after a prolonged illness and died on April 7 1767, near Caap de Lopo Gonzalvos,1˚30΄ south latitude. Jan van Sprang became captain after him, Martinus Cusé became first mate and I became second mate. There have been no deaths among the slaves.”

The letter contained many details on the course of the voyage, which is probably why it was preserved among the letters of the captain of this ship. Adriaan also speaks of the remarkable burial at sea which captain Daniël Pruijmelaar received:

 “We have had some issues with setting our captain Daniël Pruijmelaar over board. The coffin would not sink, so we decided to let it drift till it would be lost to sight between water and wind. So we set our course opposite that of the coffin, heading straight back. But at noon, while sitting at dinner about two hours later, we saw the coffin drifting before the bow again, to the side of the ship.”

“We fished it out of the water and opened it up, then put more weights in it so it could sink better. In doing so my mate Cusé did nothing but curse as swear, like an mad man, so that they told him: Cusé, calm down, God knows whether this coffin is a herald of your death. But all of them ignored it. The next two or three days he took to his bunk – since then he has done little to no work.”

Letter of May 21 1767, captain’s letters, MCC Archive, inv. Nr. 1368

Hunger is a Poor Counselor

And how did the The Unity fare? Or rather, how did she perish? Her first and second voyages were return trips to the Caribbean; the third, fourth and fifth voyages were triangular voyages. On the fourth voyage, Daniel Pruijmelaar was captain; on the ship’s fifth, and last voyage, it was Willem de Molder.

The fifth voyage was almost completed succesfully. The Unity had come back to the North Sea after a long voyage to the coasts of West Africa and Suriname. The weather was stormy, and the visuals so bad that even the pilot lost his way. For seven days the ship drifted across the North Sea and The Channel, before finally sighting land on November 6, 1767. It turned out to be the westpoint of Schouwen Island: The Unity had ended up at the mouth of the river Maas.

The crew begged the captain to stop at the first possible port: the last of the ship’s provisions had been eaten days ago by the hungry sailors. A ship’s council was held, where they decided to sail to Goedereede. A shot was fired for another pilot, since no one trusted the skills of the English pilot anymore – but none came. Instead, a fishing boat came alongside. The fishermen told the captain that he would do well not to stay there with his ship, for if a storm should rise again, he would definitely lose his ship. The suggested that one of them (in return for thirty guilders) would steer het ship to safe waters. The captain and officers agreed, and one of the fishermen came on board to set the course. A few hours later a pilot came on board.

After the pilot’s arrival, the troubles truly began. Fifteen minutes after the previous pilot had left, The Unity hit the ground for the first time. “The beach is too close”, according to the pilot, and he changed course. A little later the ship again scoured the river floor, and now the pilot began to doubt. Hesitatnly he chose another course. After he had had the anchor dropped and raised twice, because the location was not safe, captain Willem de Molder became fed up. De Molder did not trust the faltering pilot and and wanted to return to sea. He consulted with the other members of the ship’s council, but they refused, due to the lack of food. They declared they’d rather remain here “than die of hunger at sea”.

At night The Unity hit the sandbanks harder and harder. The ship was cracking at the seams, and the boat and row boat continually hit against the ship’s sides. The situation became so dire that on Novermber 7, 1767, het captain and officers made the momentous decision to leave the ship. The holds were already flooded with a foot of water. The crew took their places in the boat and rowboat, which remained between the ship and the shore. Then they waited.

The wind rose and the seas became rougher and rougher. Finally, the waves dashed the ship to pieces. Pieces of wood drifted in the water. The crew were saved by two fishing boats, who took the boat and rowboat back to the harbour of Brielle. A fisherman who arrived in port a little later reported that the water had already reached the ship’s cabin. The next day, November 8, 1767, the captain went back to the ship to see if it was possible to salvage any goods. The ship was lying on het its side, with its masts sticking out across the water. The shallow water made any salvaging impossible. Months later,  some beachcombers still found some tackle and rigging, worth 51 guilders.