A Redeemed Slave Waits to Go Home – 1742 A.D.


Maria ter Meteelen was a working class Dutch woman, captured by corsairs out of one of the North African pirate strongholds and, like so many thousands of European travellers, enslaved.

The Plague at Meknès

Meanwhile the plague broke out on the 13th of June in the year 1742. Every day it killed 100 people or more. The King went into the countryside with his army [and stayed] under the tent which they set up there and he forbade anyone of his army and the Christians who were there with him to go into the town. But these last went there in secret. The people were not free with the result that the plague was very grave, but what is most remarkable is that we Christians traded daily with the Moors and every day we were obliged to cross the town to buy food and we lived in the heart of the town. Jews and Moors were our suppliers; now they died of plague, but not one of us Christians fell ill. I had permission to go to the palace with my servant, a Jewish woman, and when I was thus crossing the town, the Moors asked whether the plague was raging among us too. I said no. Then they asked me what to do to avoid it. I said we had no advice to give them, but it depended on what God sent us and for which they praised His glory. But then some among them said that we unbelievers and so Muly Magomet [Muhammad] and He [God] did not know us, but he did know them, and therefore Magomet had sent them these hardships on earth.

Our Christians were very sad and distressed, for they were afraid of catching the plague and dying; I, on the other hand, was full of courage and I firmly hoped to be freed by the end of the year, which caused several of them to jeer at me……

Maria ter Meetelen kept her spirits up by reading the Bible and her optimism proved to be well-founded.

A fortnight later, a messenger arrived from Tangiers with a letter from the merchant Don Louis Buttelaar, bringing us the pleasant news that Captain Lambregt, a captain of their High Lordships, had ransomed the [Dutch] slaves that were in Tangiers from the Bashi and he had made an agreement that the slaves who were with the King should be delivered to him within six weeks. I was alone in my tavern when the messenger arrived. I took the letter, but did not open it because it was addressed to the whole Dutch community, but I began to shout and cry without stopping;

“Freedom! Freedom!”

After a period of preparations and farewells, they set out.

Tétuan and the Plague

At last towards evening, we arrived at Tétuan, which is still two hours distant from the sea. We lodged in the house of the English Consul where we stayed for another three months and five days, for lack of a boat; none came because the death rate was so high. But when we got there, there was no doubt about the plague and the day on which the King freed us, in the town on Meknès, the dead had numbered twenty-four thousand and at present there are still fifty or sixty each day. And during our journey, we had passed by various villages and market towns wiped out by death.  And about fifteen days before the arrival of our rescuer, the plague reappeared in the town, which made us fear that no one would come to deliver the Christians.

On the 5th of April in the year 1743, a ship came into harbour. The Consul and Don Louis Buttelaar, under whose supervision we found ourselves, headed there at once and when they arrived, they found that it was an English ship, sent here from Gibraltar to learn what the situation in the country was and to make an agreement, because Gibraltar was provisioned from Tangiers and Tétuan. The war between England and Spain meant that the arrival of foodstuffs at Gibraltar from there had been blocked and the plague raging among the Turks was also a reason why life there had become terribly dear and one could get nothing for one’s money. That was why this ship had been sent and it brought us news that a Dutch warship had left the roads to come and see whether the slaves from Mèknes had arrived. This English ship, having learned that the plague was still raging, immediately set out to sea for Gibraltar and meeting the Dutch ship, hailed it and said that the slaves were waiting for it and that they had already spent three months there, but that the plague was still there. But the Dutch captain answered that in spite of the plague he would nevertheless act in such a way as to obtain the slaves and he continued to set sail for harbour.

We, however, on seeing that the ship was putting out to sea, felt the greatest dismay imaginable and were filled with the fear that we would be returned again to slavery, for we could not establish what ship it was and we thought it had gone because of the plague raging in the country.  However, we were comforted by the return of the Consul and the other gentleman, who gave us accurate information.

That day seemed as long as a year to us, but the night seemed even longer, for the Consul had brought us the good news that our rescuer was about to arrive. On the following day, in the morning, he was already in the roads and the Consul and Don Luis Buttelaar hastened there at once and went on board. But they did not agree on the rations for us, nor on the repayment of the expenses of the journey, nor on the gifts for the King and his envoy, and there was also the fact that not all the slaves were actually there and, on top of everything else, there was the cost of our board and lodging for three months, so that the Captain had a great deal of trouble settling all this and so it was not until 11th April that the matter was finally arranged and we could go on board with great joy.

This passage is taken from “The Curious and Amazing Adventures of Maria ter Meetelen, Twelve Years a Slave” (1731-43), translated by Caroline Stone and Karen Johnson, Hardinge Simpole, 2010, pp.116-9 and 123-4.

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