Remembering the SS Mendi

On 21 February 1917 over 600 black South Africans serving in World War I lost their lives when the troop carrier SS Mendi sank in the icy waters of the English Channel. This story is now to be taught in British schools.

SS Mendi ship history
The SS Mendi ship. (Image: South African History Online)

Brand South Africa reporter
One of South Africa’s worst military disasters is to be taught in British schools to highlight the role of black soldiers in World War I, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission announced on Monday 2 October 2006.

A total of 616 South Africans, including 607 black troops serving in the South African Native Labour Contingent, died when the steamship SS Mendi sank in the English Channel on the way to France on 21 February 1917.

Let Us Die Like Brothers, a 20-minute film exploring the Mendi disaster and black South Africans’ involvement in the European war, is to be distributed to more than 5 000 British schools. It was commissioned by the CWGC and produced at no cost by the History Channel.

The film’s release marks Black History Month, held in October in the UK. It will be launched in South Africa in February 2007, the 90th anniversary of the Mendi tragedy.

The title Let Us Die Like Brothers comes from a prayer said to the men by ship’s chaplain Isaac Wauchope Dyobha as the SS Mendi went down.

Watch the film here:

In icy waters

On 16 January 1917 the Mendi troopship sailed from Cape Town en route to La Havre in France, carrying the Fifth Battalion of the South African Native Labour Contingent. On board were 805 black privates, 22 white officers and 33 crew.

On the morning of 21 February 1917, just south of the Isle of Wight, the 4 000-ton steamship was rammed and almost cut in half by a 11 000-ton liner, the SS Darro. The Mendi sank in 20 minutes, and 607 black troops, nine white officers and all 33 crewmembers died in the icy waters of the English Channel.

The captain of the Darro, HW Stump, was later disciplined for travelling at speed through fog without sounding a warning horn. It was also said that he took no steps to save the drowning, merely floating his ship nearby while lifeboats from the SS Mendi’s escorting destroyer, HMS Brisk, rowed among survivors, trying to rescue them.

Legends of bravery

There are many legends of the troops’ bravery as the ship sank. One is that of the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, who is said to have calmed the panicked men by crying out this prayer:

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do … you are going to die, but that is what you came to do … I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers … Swazis, Pondos, Basotho … so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa …”

Another legend is that of the “death dance”, as the men of the labour contingent performed one last, barefooted, dance on the tilting deck of the Mendi before she plunged beneath the ocean.

Then there was Joseph Tshite, a schoolmaster from near Pretoria, who encouraged the drowning men in the waters around him with hymns and prayers until he, too, succumbed. A white sergeant is said to have been supported by two black compatriots, who swam with him and found place for him on a piece of flotsam.

The Mendi disaster was one of South Africa’s worst tragedies of World War I, second perhaps only to the Battle of Delville Wood.

Among the South Africans lost were some prominent men such as the Pondoland chiefs Henry Bokleni, Dokoda Richard Ndamase, Mxonywa Bangani and the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha.

When the news of the tragedy was announced to Parliament on 9 March 1917, all the members of the South African House of Assembly, led by celebrated Boer War hero and Prime Minister Louis Botha, rose in their seats as a token of respect.

The SA Native Labour Contingent

Some 21 000 black South Africans – all volunteers – served in France with the South African Native Labour Contingent between 1916 and 1918. They joined a labour force made up of French, British, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Egyptian and Canadian labourers, as well as German prisoners of war.

By the time the unit was disbanded in 1918, the SANLC had dug quarries, laid and repaired roads and railway lines, and cut tons of timber. But most of the men were employed in the French harbours of Le Havre, Rouen and Dieppe, where they unloaded supply ships and loaded trains with supplies for the battlefront.

Three hundred and thirty-three of these men gave their lives in France during World War I. Most are buried at the British military cemetery at Arques-la-Bataille, while those who died on the Mendi are remembered at the Hollybrook Memorial in Southhampton, England. A plaque at the Delville Wood Museum in France, a little known memorial in Port Elizabeth and the new Mendi memorial at Avalon cemetery in Soweto – unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1995 – also commemorate the disaster.

The SS Mendi is also honoured by the modern South African Navy, which has among its fleet the SAS Isaac Dyobha, a Warrior-class fast attack craft – and probably one of the few naval warships in the world named after a cleric – and the SAS Mendi, a Valour-class frigate.

In 23 August 2004 a wreath-laying ceremony was held when the SAS Mendi and the British Navy’s HMS Nottingham met at the site where the SS Mendi sank.

The Mendi has also given its name to South Africa’s highest award for courage, the Order of the Mendi Decoration for Bravery, bestowed by the President on South African citizens who have performed extraordinary acts of bravery.

Today, the SS Mendi lies on the ocean floor some 11 miles south of the Isle of Wight.

Sources: South African History Online, Sapa-AFP, Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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