The Wreck of the SS Mendi

Updated on June 3, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Hundreds of black South African men were killed when the ship carrying them to World War I battlefields sank. The men were volunteers in the South African Native Labour Corps and they lost their lives through the incompetence of a sea captain.

The SS Mendi in happier times as a passenger ship.
The SS Mendi in happier times as a passenger ship. | Source

The Need for Labour

By 1916, the Allied generals were running out of labouring manpower. Those who had been assigned to infrastructure support roles had to be thrown into the meat-grinder the battlefields had become.

The call went out to the British Empire for help. According to the British Council, “… the prevalent view in Britain was an absolute belief in the superiority of the white man. So, although it was deemed necessary to conscript and recruit from the Caribbean, Africa, and India, there was uneasiness at the prospect of putting weapons into the hands of colonial subjects.”

Some unlucky non-whites did go into combat although they were always under the command of white officers.

King George V inspects South African labourers in July 1917.
King George V inspects South African labourers in July 1917. | Source

Labouring Recruits

South African blacks volunteered to help out the British Empire in her hour of need. Some of them thought, naively, that their duty to the Crown would lead to greater political freedom.

The British needed men with strong backs who could wield shovels. The black volunteers had the job of building camps, roads, railways, and trenches in support of the infantrymen who were dying in the mass slaughter of near-suicide attacks across no-man’s-land.

The BBC notes “They were not allowed to bear arms, were kept segregated, and were not eligible for military honours.”

It was an article of faith that black men were not allowed to raise their hands against white men, even if those white men were enemies who started a war.

They were relegated to the status they knew back home – grunt labourers without rights.

Source

A Fateful Journey

In the middle of the southern hemisphere’s summer, the SS Mendi left Cape Town for Europe. A quite small vessel of only 4,230 tons, she had 823 men on board. The Mendi stopped in Lagos, Nigeria, where she was fitted with a naval gun.

The next port of call was Plymouth on England’s south coast where the gloom and chill of midwinter had settled on the land.

On February 20, 1917, the Mendi left Plymouth with a Royal Navy escort in the form of a destroyer, HMS Brisk. They were headed for Le Havre, France, where the men of the labour corps would begin their overland journey to near the front lines.

It was foggy early the next morning off the coast of the Isle of Wight. At about 5 a.m. the SS Daro, almost three times bigger than the Mendi and travelling at full speed, smacked into the smaller vessel’s starboard quarter. The collision tore a large hole in the Mendi’s plates and she immediately started taking on water.

Below decks, some of the Africans were killed instantly by the collision and others were trapped by the wreckage. Those that could, gathered on the Mendi’s deck as she listed and eventually sank in half an hour into the frigid waters of the English Channel.

The names of many of the men lost in the SS Mendi disaster are listed at Southampton’s Hollybrook memorial.
The names of many of the men lost in the SS Mendi disaster are listed at Southampton’s Hollybrook memorial. | Source

Dying with Dignity

The SS Daro was scarcely damaged at all and her skipper, Captain Henry W. Stump, pulled his vessel away and watched the disaster unfold. He did nothing to assist the victims of his reckless seamanship.

As the men shivered on their stricken ship, the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha is said to have delivered an inspiring sermon. There is no official record of his speech, but it’s an anecdote told by survivors and often repeated:

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do.

“You are going to die, but that is what you came to do.

“Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death.

“I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers.

“We are the sons of Africa.

“Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais (spears) at our kraals (homes), our voices are left with our bodies.”

The men then did a “death drill;” a stamping, barefoot, dance on the deck of their doomed ship.

Rescue Efforts

Because the ship was listing to starboard, the lifeboats on that side could not be launched. Port side lifeboats were launched and some of the Mendi’s passengers got away in them and on rafts; those who tried to swim did not last long in the chilly water.

The captain of HMS Brisk lowered boats and rescued about 200 men. Nearly 650 men died.

The captain of the SS Daro was found to be entirely responsible for the disaster, for travelling at full speed in fog and not using his horn to warn other vessels.

He suffered what seems to be the trivial penalty of losing his license for one year. Could it be that if the victims had been white, Capt. Stump would have been handed a much harsher punishment?

Bonus Factoids

The wreck of the SS Mendi was located in 1945 about 20 km south of the Isle of Wight, but it was not identified until found by divers in 1974.

About 300,000 men from the British Empire served in the Foreign Labour Corps. They received a medal but not much else in recognition of what they did.

Little mention was made of the tragedy of the SS Mendi in war histories. The story was mostly handed down by word of mouth among black South Africans. When that country’s racial segregation policy was finally dismantled in 1994 the sacrifice of the men received much more attention. Memorials have been erected and a ship in the South African Navy has been named the Mendi.

In 2018, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May presented the salvaged ship's bell from the SS Mendi to South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa.
In 2018, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May presented the salvaged ship's bell from the SS Mendi to South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa. | Source

Sources

  • SS Mendi.” South African History Online, February 19, 2019.
  • “Dancing the Death Drill: The Sinking of the SS Mendi.” Bethan Bell & Marcus White, BBC News, February 21, 2017
  • “The Hidden History of the Sinking of the SS Mendi.” Baroness Lola Young, British Council, October 31, 2014.
  • “Wreck of the SS Mendi.” Wessex Archaeology, April 2007.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      2 months ago from UK

      This is a sad tale. I find it incredible that the man who caused the tragedy did nothing to help and that his licence was revoked for a relatively short time. You pose a valid question about the likely consequences had the men been white.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)