The Loss of the Troopship Mendi
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Introduction.
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.
Ship Description.
The 4230 GRT Mendi, owned by Elder Dempster, 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.

Isle of Wight
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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, 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 Dyobha. 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.

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 never 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 Britainís 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. The South African Navy has also accorded honour to those who died in this tragedy. One of the new Valour Class Corvettes has been named SAS Mendi, while a Warrior Class strike craft has been renamed SAS Isaac Dyobha. The Goverment has also commissioned a medal, called "The Order of Mendi for Bravery" Decoration is awarded to South African citizens who have performed an extraordinary act of bravery that placed their lives in great danger, or who lost their own lives including in trying to save the life of another person, or by saving property, in or outside the Republic of South Africa.
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. The 17 panels of the Hollybrook Memorial which bear the names of the dead of the Mendi, were replaced in early 2007 to correct some linguistic inaccuracies in spelling of names. Working with various records and an expert in South African languages, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission was able to correct the discrepancies which had been uncovered. The irony however is that the military personel that died in this disaster are recognised by the CWGC, but members of the crew of the vessel do not qualify for war grave status as they were not killed in the line of duty. (Dieing while manning a troopship that sinks in a collision is not considered to be "killed in the line of duty")

There are 9 Mendi casualties buried in Porstmouth at the Milton Cemetery in four double graves, and a single. These have been visited by members of the South African Legion in the Uk, and I was fortunate enough to visit them as well. One crewman, Scullion William Bernard Vivian Morris is mentioned on the Garston Parish Church War Memorial.
There are numerous Mendi references in South Africa, The Mendi Memorial, which is situated in 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 at the Ga-Mothakga Recreation Resort, in Pitse and Tlou Street, Atteridgeville, there is a simple memorial which reads, "For those who know no grave but the sea." There is also a Mendi Memorial at the Simonstown naval base



SAS Mendi in Port Elizabeth
On 23 August 2004, HMS Nottingham, representing the Royal Navy and SAS Mendi rendezvoused at the site of the wreck and laid wreaths in remembrance of those who lost their lives for their country and the allied forces. (for more information on this memorial service please visit MEMORIAL WREATH LAYING FOR THE SS MENDI AND HER CREW

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission commissioned a 20 minute film called "Let Us Die Like Brothers" which is to be used as a teaching aid, highlighting the role of black soldiers in World War I. The film was due for release in South Africa in February 2007, the 90th anniversary of the sinking of the Mendi.
http://www.southafrica.info/ess_info/sa_glance/history/mendi.htm
The "Wreck report for Mendi and Darro 1917" may be downloaded at http://www.plimsoll.org/
Today the bridge telegraph from the Mendi can be seen at the Maritime Museum, Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight.
The Mendi Memorial at Avalon Cemetery in Soweto was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II on 23 March 1995, images of this memorial can be seen on my Mendi Memorial page.

My visit to Hollybrook in April 2013

Avalon

Atteridgeville Memorial

Port Elizabeth

Mendi Graves, Portsmouth

Mendi Graves, Portsmouth

Mendi Graves, Portsmouth
Recently another memorial to the Mendi was unveiled in Cape Town. A sculpture, by local artist Madi Phala, represents a mock ship's prow cast in heavy metal, sinking into the ground. In front of it are helmets, hats and discs, symbolising the men, officers and crew of the SS Mendi. A plaque simply reads "SS Mendi, S. African troopship, sank next to the Isle of Wight 1917 02 21". Located on an embankment on the Mowbray campus of the University of Cape Town, the site has significance to the Mendi, as it here that troops of the South African Native Labour Contingent had billeted before embarking on the ill-fated SS Mendi for France. http://heritage.thetimes.co.za/memorials/wc/ReverendIsaacWauchope/article.aspx?id=592885.
Sadly, the artist Madi Phala was murdered outside his home in Langa, Cape Town. in March 2007.

The University of Wessex Archaeology has a comprehensive Mendi page at SS Mendi at Wessex Archaeology
In March 2009, after a long campaign by Now, thanks to a campaign by retired Major Ned Middleton, the Ministry of Defence has finally agreed to designate the site of the wreck of the Mendi as an official war grave. Until Major Middleton's campaign the ship was not granted war grave status in the UK. Major Middleton, of Outwell, Cambs, received written confirmation from Defence Minister Kevan Jones in March that his wish has been granted. The decision will be formalised in the British Parliament later this year. Reported in the The Telegraph of 18 March 2009.

A representation of the loss of the Mendi can be found on the bronze panel depicting South Africas participation in various campaigns during World War I, at the Delville Wood Memorial in France. The panel is by Jo Roos. (New window 1487x620)
Recommended reading.
There was not much written about the loss of the Mendi, like so many other wartime shipwrecks she had almost been lost in obscurity. However, as the years have passed more information has become available, and today we known a lot more about the Mendi, but sadly very little about her crew and those who lost their lives in the disaster.
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.
The Unknown Force, Black, Indian and Coloured Soldiers Through Two World Wars by Ian Gleeson (Ashanti Publishers 1994) also has a chapter on the Mendi.
As the years have passed the Mendi has become a very important part of our countries history and consequently there is a wealth of material available for reading. Unfortunately recognition came too many years too late for the family of those who were lost in the disaster.
It is also well worth reading The Mendi Disaster by Murray MacGregor.
Photograph of SAS Mendi courtesy of the
SA Transport Website, photographs of the PE Mendi Memorial by Ronnie Lovemore. Image of Atteridgeville Memorial courtesy of Christopher Szabo
© DR Walker 1997-2013. Updated 29 December 2013.