Over 100 years ago, South Africa experienced a tragedy that was almost forgotten but for the dedication of many people and the oral tradition of a nation who ensured that the story would be told.
The sinking of the troopship Mendi during the First World War 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 members of the 5th Battalion, South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) on board. 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, and from the Transvaal in 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 (Official number 120875), was owned by the British & African Steam Navigation Company Limited. which was part of Elder, Dempster and Company. She was 370 ft long with a beam of 46 ft and was built by Alexander Stephen & Sons, Glasgow. She was fitted with triple expansion steam engines that gave her a maximum speed of 13 knots.
The ship carried seven boats (6 lifeboats and a gig), providing a capacity of 298 people, as well as 46 life rafts each capable of supporting 20 people (920 in total). She served on the Liverpool to West Africa run until chartered by the British Government in 1916 and thereafter performed a number of trooping duties before this tragedy and was considered a well found vessel.
The ship was carrying 15 officers, 17 NCO’s and 802 members of the South African Native Labour Corps as well as 1500 tons of cargo and set sail under convoy for Plymouth. The SANLC men were quartered in the number 1, 2 and 4 holds. After calling at Plymouth she set sail for Le Havre on the 20th of February at full speed, escorted by the destroyer HMS Brisk. The weather was overcast, threatening mist with light winds and a smooth sea. However, after midnight the weather became thicker and speed was reduced until the ship was sailing at slow speed. The whistle was sounded and a number of other ships whistles were heard. At 4.45 the escort signaled the Mendi and suggested that the slow speed made it difficult to keep station. The Mendi maintained her slow speed.
At the same time the SS Darro was inbound for the UK under the command of Captain Henry Stump. She too was travelling through the same foggy conditions that the Mendi was. She was sailing at roughly 13 knots and her engines were on “stand by” but speed was not reduced. The ship was not blowing her whistle as laid down by the regulations. Lookouts had been posted on the ship but speed was not slackened.
At roughly 5 am, Captain Stump and his chief officer heard a ship’s whistle and saw a green light some 200 feet away and about a point on the port bow. The order was given to stop engines and then full astern. The ship did not blow her whistle. The Darro ran into the hapless Mendi, striking her at right angles, damaging the bulkhead between number 1 and 2 holds where the troops were quartered. The Darro then backed out of the hole, presumably because her engines were now responding the the full astern command given shortly before the collision. She disappeared into the fog, leaving the Mendi to founder.
On board the stricken Mendi orders were given to lower the boats to the rail and the 4 whistle blast signal for boat stations was given. The boats were then ordered to be lowered to the water and to lie alongside.
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, a number were probably killed outright in the collision, or were trapped when the ships started to sink. The Mendi had 25 minutes to live and that was not a lot of time to get on deck. It was obvious that many would never make it to safety and the legend of the Death Dance came into being.
The Death Dance.
Legend records that amongst those left on board the ship panic did not ensue. Instead a leader emerged: 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.
Joseph Tshite, a schoolmaster from near Pretoria, encouraged those around him with hymns and prayers until he died.
Many would perish from exposure that night and the resulting death toll was high. Of the 802 SANLC troops on board some 607 men of the South African contingent perished, as did 30 members of her crew. The Darro lay off not too far from where the disaster was unfolding, on board her the lifeboats were lowered to the rail and all hands were on deck. In spite of these preparations and the sound of voices in the water no attempt was made to investigate what had happened or to rescue survivors although 2 boats did reach the ship and survivors were embarked. She remained in the area until until just before 9 am. and then set sail for a Channel port (possibly Southampton or Portsmouth) where 107 survivors of which 64 were from the SANLC were landed. Other survivors were picked up by HMS Brisk.
Report on the sinking of the Mendi.
A board of inquiry was convened in July and August 1917 to ascertain the facts leading to the casualty, and the “Wreck report for Mendi and Darro 1917” may be downloaded at http://www.plimsoll.org/(Link may no longer work). It does make for interesting reading, but the questions asked were strictly in line with ascertaining the facts and ensuring that there was no negligence under the regulations.
The report did decide on the following:
“(5) The collision was caused by the SS “Darro” proceeding at an excessive speed without sound signals when the weather was thick with fog. The loss of life was caused by the collision, by the “Mendi” taking a heavy list to starboard and foundering so quickly, by the lack of assistance from the “Darro” after the collision, and by the low temperature of the water. The loss of life at the moment of impact was due to the “Darro” striking the “Mendi” on the starboard side, in the vicinity of the fore troop deck, where a considerable number of the native labour battalion were quartered.”
“(7) The SS “Mendi” was navigated with proper seamanlike care. The SS “Darro” was not so navigated”
“(11) Neither the loss of the SS “Mendi”, nor the loss of life , nor the material damage sustained by the SS “Darro”, was caused by the wrongful act or default of the master of the SS “Mendi”. The loss of the SS “Mendi” and the loss of life and the material damage sustained by the SS “Darro” were caused by the wrongful act and default of the master of the “SS Darro”. The Court suspends his certificate, no 017169, for 12 months from the date hereof; not so much because of his neglect to observe the said Regulations under war conditions, as because of his failure to comply with section 422 (1) (a) of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. ”
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. However, it was wartime so a certain degree of censorship was to be expected.
It was even questioned whether the death dance even occurred 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. Increasingly more people are taking up the call “Remember the Mendi” and each year more commemoration are held, attracting a lot of interest, not only in South Africa, but in the United Kingdom too.
Those who did not come home.
The dead are remembered on the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, The 17 panels of the 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 personnel 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. (Dying 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 Portsmouth 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.
The graves of Simon Linganiso, Smith Segule and Jim Mbombiya are to be found in Littlehampton Cemetery (UK) while Sitebe Molife Abram Leboche, Arosi Zenzile, Natal Kazumula, Sikaniso Mtolo and an Unknown Soldier from the Mendi disaster are buried in Noorwijk General Cemetery in the Netherlands. Thomas Monamatunyu is buried in Wimereux Communal Cemetery in France while Jabez Nguza is buried in Hastings Cemetery in Sussex.
Scullion William Bernard Vivian Morris is mentioned on the Garston Parish Church War Memorial, while The Ferreira Deep Memorial in Trump Street, Booysens has the name of RSM T.K. Turner on it, who lost his life in the sinking of the Mendi, and lived very close to where I grew up as a child.
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 was to be formalised in the British Parliament later that year. (Reported in the The Telegraph of 18 March 2009.)
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.”
The Mendi Memorial at Avalon Cemetery in Soweto was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II on 23 March 1995.
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, at the former Rosebank Camp, that troops of the South African Native Labour Contingent were billeted before embarking on the ill-fated SS Mendi for France.
A government notice issued on December 30 by the South African Heritage Resources Agency declared the Mendi Memorial on the University of Cape Town (UCT) sports fields in Rosebank, Cape Town, as a national heritage site. “The Mendi Memorial, located at the southeast corner of the University of Cape Town’s soccer fields, is a symbolic reminder of the South African lives lost on the steamship Mendi in 1917 and of the long-ignored and forgotten history of the South African Native Labour Corps,” said the notice issued by the Department of Arts and Culture. “It is a reminder of the role played by black South Africans in World War I and of the links these events have to the liberation struggle in South Africa. The University of Cape Town soccer fields were formerly the Rosebank Showgrounds which were used during World War I as the national assembly camp and depot for the South African Native Labour Corps. It was at this camp that all the men enlisted in the corps from all over South Africa and Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho assembled, were kitted out and received their basic training, and from which they departed to Cape Town harbour to take ship to France. For many of the men on the Mendi, this was where they spent their last night on South African soil.” http://heritage.thetimes.co.za/memorials/wc/ReverendIsaacWauchope/article.aspx?id=592885. (link no longer works)
Sadly, the artist Madi Phala who created the original piece was murdered outside his home in Langa, Cape Town, in March 2007.
In 2014 the memorial, located on the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Lower Campus, underwent an extensive upgrade and now includes a retaining wall, roll of honour and interpretive plaque.
A representation of the loss of the Mendi may be found on the bronze panel depicting South Africa’s participation in various campaigns during World War I, at the Delville Wood Memorial in France. The panel is by Jo Roos. (New window 1487×620) and in 1986, a bronze plaque was unveiled at the Delville Wood memorial which portrays the sinking of the ship.
In the parish churchyard of St John The Evangelist, Newtimber, Sussex, there is a memorial plaque in memory of “Chief Henry Bokleni Ndamase” who perished on the Mendi.
There is also a Mendi Memorial at the Simonstown Naval Base. The image of the plaque was sent to me by Alta Griffiths.
Today the bridge telegraph from the Mendi can be seen at the Maritime Museum, Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight.
On 28 August 2018, the bell of the Mendi was represented to the president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, by Teresa May, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The bell was recovered unofficially from the wreck during the 1980’s and given to BBC reporter Steve Humphrey in 2017 in a plastic bag at Swanage Pier, Dorset, after an anonymous phone call. It was then put on display at the Sea City Museum in Southampton. It is not known where the bell will be displayed in South Africa.
The South African Navy has also accorded honour to those who died in this tragedy. One of the new Valour Class Corvettes was named SAS Mendi, while a Warrior Class strike craft has been renamed SAS Isaac Dyobha.
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. In February 2017, SAS Amatola, sister ship to SAS Mendi, journeyed to the United Kingdom where she was joined by HMS Dragon in laying wreaths in the area where the Mendi went down, on board were selected family of some of the men that died on board.
Following this commemoration, the South African Legion of Military Veterans in the United Kingdom performed a most subtle but very striking dedication when the wreck was dived in an official dedication ceremony held in August 2017 by the SA Legion; England Branch Chairman – Claudio Chistè (a ex SA Navy Diver) doing the honours. They then placed a plaque on the wreck itself in dedication and in permanent memory of their ‘brothers’ https://samilhistory.com/2017/02/12/let-us-die-like-brothers-the-silent-voices-of-the-ss-mendi-finally-heard/
(Image courtesy of Peter Dickens and the South African Legion of Military Veterans in the United Kingdom) (1024×624)
The inscription reads:
The South African Government has also commissioned a medal, called “The Order of Mendi for Bravery”.
The 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 Mendi in the Visual Media.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission commissioned a 20 minute film called “Let Us Die Like Brothers” which was 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.
In 2015, a new documentary was made by Sabido Productions entitled “Troopship Tragedy“, it is directed by Marion Edmunds.
“A young storyteller, Zwai Mgijima, takes the burden of this story on his shoulders. While writing a play about the SS Mendi, he seeks answers from the old people who still live amid the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape to fill out the record of this tragedy. They tell him that they would like the bones of their ancestors returned for a proper African burial, otherwise they will find no peace.
Zwai embarks on a journey: he travels from rural Pondoland in South Africa to England to find the SS Mendi on the seabed. Joining forces with a diving crew Zwai intends to disturb the slumber of that watery grave and call the ancestors home. Featuring dramatic re-enactment and underwater filming of the actual shipwreck, the documentary shows how Zwai grapples to reconcile the senseless loss of life in a distant war with the need to placate his people who are still aggrieved by memories of a dark and disturbing tragedy.”
It is a very interesting piece and touches on the effect that the disaster had on the rural people of South Africa.
Another film in the pipeline is due to start soon, and scripting has already begun. More information is available off their website. However, no real updates have appeared on the website so I do not know whether this project will ever be completed.
More 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 the Mendi has become a very important part of our countries history. Today we know a lot more about the Mendi, but sadly very little about her crew and those who lost their lives in the disaster. Unfortunately recognition came too many years too late for the family of those who were lost in the disaster.
- The definitive book used to be 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.
- Men of the Mendi, South Africa’s Forgotten Heroes of World War I, by Brenda Shepherd, published by 30 Degrees South
- One recent addition to my Mendi references is the poetry of the Xhosa poet and historian Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi who wrote a very powerful poem about the Mendi, and the men of the SANLC. Unfortunately copyright precludes me from adding it in here, but it is worthwhile following the links to read it for yourself although the links were both returning a 404 error when I checked them in 2021. S.E.K. Mqhayi – A Call to Arms and The Sinking of the Mendi
- The University of Wessex Archaeology has a comprehensive Mendi page at SS Mendi at Wessex Archaeology
- 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. (Ian Gleeson (Ashanti Publishers 1994)) also has a chapter on the Mendi.
- Fighting their Own War: South African Blacks and the First World War by Albert Grundlingh (Ravan Press, Dec 1987) also covers the SANLC and the conditions in South Africa’s rural areas as well as reasons why men volunteered or were volunteered for service.
- Dancing the Death Drill: by Fred Khumalo (Jacaranda Books Art Music Ltd 1 Feb. 2017) is a fictional account of a man caught up in the Mendi disaster.
- It is well worth reading The Mendi Disaster by Murray MacGregor.
This page has slowly grown over the years, and as I found new articles I added in links to them, although in many cases I was never able to find out anything further on that particular branch of this tree. My own visit to Hollybrook was a very emotional one for me, and I am unlikely to forget it. One day I will still get to St Catherines Point, I have already reached Cowes…
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. Image of Newtimber Memorial © Copyright Bob Parkes and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Image of the plaque laid on the Mendi courtesy of Peter Dickens and the South African Legion of Military Veterans in the United Kingdom.
DRW © 2007-2021. (This was the page version) Updated 29/12/2013, 10/12/2016. moved to blog 26/01/2014, edited 23/11/2014, updated 12/01/2017, 07/02/2017. 22/02/2017, 30/08/2018. Moved to Musings 01/01/2021, checked links and marked 404’s. Linked in some of the pages and tried to ensure continuity amongst the moved material.