The sinking of the troopship Mendi during World War 1 was a disaster in its own right. However, the way in which this disaster was conveniently forgotten is a tragedy which betrays the gallantry of those involved.
The troopship Mendi set sail from Cape Town on 16 January 1917 with 802 members of the 5th Battalion, South African Native Labor Corps (SANLC). Her final destination was La Havre, France from where the call had come out for men to man the trenches and help fight in the ever increasingly bloody war on the Western Front. The men from the SANLC were mostly from the rural areas of the Pondo Kingdom in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. They were not to be used as a fighting force and were forbidden to bear arms as there was a fear that they could revolt against military or civilian authority. Instead they were to be utilised as labourers digging trenches and performing other manual labour as well as forming stretcher bearer parties.
The 4230 GRT Mendi was 370 ft long with a beam of 46 ft. She served on the Liverpool to West Africa run until chartered by the British Government in 1916.
After calling at Plymouth she set sail for Le Havre, and in thick mist, while approximately 12 miles off St Catherine's Point on the Isle of Wight she was struck on the starboard side by the SS Darro, a 11000 ton liner. It was the 21st of February, a day which will be remembered in legend and in heroism. Immediately the Mendi started to list to starboard and sink. The troops on board were mostly asleep in the troopdecks and the collision must have been a terrifying experience for men who were not used to the hazards of the sea. The Darro had backed out of the hole she had caused and the sea poured into this breach. Thick mist complicated the situation and the Mendi had only 25 minutes to live. It was obvious that many would never make it to safety and the legend of the Death Dance came into being.
The Death Dance.
Amongst those left on board the ship panic did not ensue. Instead a leader emerged, Reverend Isaac Wauchope. He called the men together and admonished them. "Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die... but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Swazi's, Pondo's, Basuto's, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegaais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies. "
And so those left on board removed their boots and stamped the death dance on the slanting deck of a sinking ship, far from Africa but united together as brothers and comrades in arms.
Many would perish from exposure that night and the resulting death toll was high. Of the 802 SANLC troops on board some 615 men perished. The Darro made no attempt to rescue survivors and the Master of the ship would have his licence suspended for a year. It was found that the Darro was travelling at high speed in the fog and was responsible for the disaster.
Aftermath. Oral Tradition, Memorials and Legends.
There is no doubt that there was a fair amount of "censorship" involved when it came to acknowledging the sacrifice of these soldiers and that the South African Government found it convenient to shunt the whole episode into a dark corner. It was even questioned whether the death dance even occured at all. However, oral tradition has passed the story onwards through generations of Black South Africans and today it has become accepted that the death dance did occur and that these men died with valour. Recognition of their sacrifice was slow in coming and the 21st of February is often remembered in the Black community as Mendi Day.
The dead are remembered on the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, and in 1986, a bronze plaque was unveiled at the Delville Wood memorial which portrays the sinking of the ship. There are numerous Mendi references in South Africa, The Mendi Memorial, which is situated in Mendi Road, New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, was erected "In memory of the servicemen who lost their lives at sea when the troopship S.S. Mendi foundered near St. Catherine's Point on the Isle of Wight". While in the Gamothaga Resort in Atteridgeville, there is a simple memorial which reads, "For those who know no grave but the sea."
Many of the relatives of the warriors who died never received official notification from the British Government about what happened to their loved ones. They had received a word of thanks in recognition of the sacrifice the men made or a penny in compensation, not even an apology. Many people from the region feel angry about the way they were still being treated 84 years after the tragedy and the total disregard shown to the families of the volunteer troops after the tragedy. South African church leader Joseph Kobo said there had been a major cover-up and he called for the men to be properly remembered so the wounds of the past could be healed.
Leaders of a Brighton church uncovered the scandal during a visit to South Africa and publicly apologized to descendants of those who perished on the Mendi. Now tribal chiefs and churches in both countries have united to call for the troops to be properly remembered and for the two countries to be reconciled. They hope to build memorials on vantage points in the South Downs near Brighton and in South Africa. Nelson Mandela, tribal chiefs, descendants of those who died, government officials and church leaders from South Africa have been invited to come to Brighton in June for a memorial service to honour the forgotten heroes of the Mendi.
The fight for justice for more than 600 black South African troops who perished in a marine disaster is being taken to Parliament. The Kemp Town MP, Des Turner was to table an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons to support the relatives of the tribesmen who died after their ship was rammed by the British liner SS Darro in the Channel in 1917. A dossier of information about the sinking of the SS Mendi, was sent to Secretary of State for Defence Geoff Hoon by the editor of the Brighton newspaper ARGUS, his private secretary Ian Wallish asked for papers to be posted to Whitehall for the minister to examine. The moves follow an investigation by an Argus reporter into one of the most shameful chapters in Great Britain’s wartime history.
In late June of 2002, it was announced that a stone was to be erected at Nyandeni, Eastern Cape, in honour of the Africans who died when the Mendi sank. The erection of this stone was also expected to coincide with the reburial of the remains of those who died when the ship sunk en route to Le Havre on the French north coast in 1917.
Today the bridge telegraph from the Mendi can be seen at the Maritime Museum, Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight.
There is not much written about the loss of the Mendi, like so many other wartime shipwrecks she has almost been lost in obscurity. However, the definitive book is by Norman Clothier, entitled Black Valour - The South African Native Labour Contingent, 1916-1918 and the Sinking of the Mendi, (University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 1987), pp 96-8.
An excellent perspective is presented by Ian Uys in his book Survivors of Africa's Oceans. (Fortress Publishers 1993), pp 38-48.
My great grandfather (Charles Henry Botha) was one of the men who died during this tragedy. I am doing extensive research on this disaster and the victims of this tragedy and would appreciate any assistance and information regarding the SS Mendi. Many things have not yet been said and it is about time to acknowledge those who have no voice TODAY!! Do you have ANY information about the SS Mendi.
Does anyone know how or where I can get a list of the passengers/ those on-board?
Please send me an e-mail. Thank you
Do we detect opportunistic pejorative revisionism? The concomitant sources and references Michael Donovan gives clearly belie the inference that “this disaster was conveniently forgotten” or the statement that the South African government “found it convenient to shunt the whole episode into a dark corner” viz.:
“The dead are remembered on the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, and in 1986, a bronze plaque was unveiled at the Delville Wood memorial which portrays the sinking of the ship. There are numerous Mendi references in South Africa, The Mendi Memorial, which is situated in Mendi Road, New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, was erected "In memory of the servicemen who lost their lives at sea when the troopship S.S. Mendi foundered near St. Catherine's Point on the Isle of Wight". While in the Gamothaga Resort in Atteridgeville, there is a simple memorial which reads, "For those who know no grave but the sea."
The same argument could be made for such as the Lancastria or the Slapton Sands incident. The only difference I can see is that here is being adduced an ‘ethnicity’ issue which seems to open a door to an interpretation gratuitously adverse to the authorities of the day.
As for the ‘dance of death’ I’m afraid we have become conditioned to associate this with lynching parties rather than with heroic departures. In any case, how the hell do you perform a dance on an increasingly sloping deck (“Immediately the Mendi started to list to starboard and sink.”)?
The only outstanding issue I can see is that of compensation and in that I can only counsel that the Mendi survivors join the queue for there are many with parallel claims.
As for manifestations of bravery I note the contributor significantly omits to mention the Mendi’s Quartermaster Wilson, Fourth Engineer Pascoe or O/S Capter. I presume their ‘ethnicity’ would obscure the palpably subjective point this contributor seeks to make.
As for the leaders of a Brighton church “uncovering “the scandal” you will find no shortage of self-flagellating apologists falling over themselves to atone for Britain’s purportedly dastardly imperial history; it’s a cross we have to bear (the apologists that is, not the history).
And as for the MP for Brighton Kemptown, some people seem to have a pressing issue with him, viz.:
Note that I hold no brief for that, it is an ill-presented diatribe probably bordering on libellous but I think it ought to be in the balance.
Incidentally, as with the Falaba both vessels were originally Elder Dempster, the Mendi having been requisitioned therefrom while the Darro had been sold out to Royal Mail in 1916. She was built for Imperial Direct West India Line, an early adjunct of Elder Dempster and presumably Royal Mail felt content to retain her mellifluous Spanish name upon acquisition.
And when the occasional Board of Trade acquaintance, having made a facile deduction based upon my surname, would feel aggrieved and emboldened enough to call me a ‘Welsh bastard’ my response would always be an explosive “less of the Welsh”. In any case, you’ll be chagrined to learn I’m more Irish than Welsh albeit in the aggregate I am one of those who did indeed draw the first prize in the lottery of life. It's just that if I’d made more of that you wouldn't find me poncing around with a load of sad bastards on a web forum.
So transport yourself back to the 19th century and tell me which of the old imperial regimes you would prefer to live or languish under: would it be Holland? Germany? France? Portugal? Britain? Turkey? United States (yes, I said the United States!)? Spain? I’d be interested to know. Perhaps you should try a canvass of ex-colonials and see which comes up favourite.
And yes, the gauge of one’s integument is indeed in inverse proportion to one’s gullibility in matters of received history.
To return to the matter in hand and to reiterate: as Michael Donovan’s failed pejorative peroration paradoxically proves, rather than having been swept under some quasi-colonial carpet or other, the Mendi disaster is as well-documented and as well-commemorated as just about any such. A little more objectivity on his part would not have come amiss.
What a can of worms I seemed to have opened - Not my intent at all to infuriate anyone. Noel - thank you for setting some of the reporting straight. This was a copy of an article and as you well know Reporters can be biased, colouring in a bit too much to SELL MORE PAPERS or make THEIR STORY look better.
All I am after is THE TRUTH. I am tired of all the cover ups, the pointing of fingers and "slinging of mud" for whatever reason (political or otherwise.) During war many people would do things they wouldn't do under normal conditions.
I have seen the effects this event has caused in my grandmother's family - the loss of a father and other ramifications resulting from their loss. The years family members yearned for acknowledgement of the sacrifice made and the trauma of having been deprived of a normal childhood.
I am not there to point a finger of blame to anyone but simply want the truth or as close as I can come to what really happened during this event - for family historical purposes.
I think that the most important thing is what we are going to do with what we have experienced or know about certain events in life. Are we going to keep quiet or are we going to share our knowledge with others and remember those who passed before us - learning from their mistakes and progressing on life's road. Remembering what happened and making others aware of the stories of these people who had to face these events first hand - what events are behind these wrecks and what lies hidden from the general eye (beneath the waters).
If anyone has adjustments, things to add, a complete list of names - basically anything Mendi to add - Please do.
"What a can of worms I seemed to have opened - Not my intent at all to infuriate anyone. Noel - thank you for setting some of the reporting straight. This was a copy of an article and as you well know Reporters can be biased, colouring in a bit too much to SELL MORE PAPERS or make THEIR STORY look better."
Well Michael, if you had quoted your source and told us you were putting it forward disinterestedly I would have been more forbearing.
And I don't think anyone's infuriated; it's only a web forum after all, not a road traffic intersection.
There must have been at some time some record of the military personnel on board the Mendi. They were enlisted, a record should have been take of their next-of-kin upon enlistment and they must have been on a payroll. I would expect such records to have been held in S.A.; the unit's papers on the ship were no doubt lost.
The Imperial War Museum has been suggested. Another source might be the National Army Museum in Chelsea.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission might be another source of information.
A complication might be that the African names were garbled or 'europeanised' at the time of attestation; this used to happen with the articles of agreement for coastwise 'native' labour and I doubt the enlisting of a native labour battalion was much different. Insofar as they were required to sign anything this would have been done with a thumb-print.
Whatever, assuming the records have been retained, S.Africa is your best bet. Remember that many records reaching the UK may not have survived the WWII blitz.
I assume you have tracked down the official Inquiry report. I'm unsure of where the remit would lie for this; Mendi was a requisitioned vessel under military (Naval?) command whereas Darro was (apparently) being operated as a merchant ship and would therefore have come under the auspices of the BOT.
Senan, thank you for the invitation to contact you privately. Unfortunately, the message "Sorry, but the user you have selected does not accept private messages." appears when I try and do that. Kindly send the contact details to [email protected]