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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
- “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
Liz Westwood from UK on June 04, 2019:
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.