Lest we forget – SS Mendi 21 February 1917

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SS Mendi was a British 4,230 GRT passenger steamship that was built in 1905 and, as a troopship, sank after collision with great loss of life in 1917.

Alexander Stephen and Sons of Linthouse in Glasgow, Scotland launched her on 18 June 1905 for the British and African Steam Navigation Company, which appointed group company Elder Dempster & Co to manage her on their Liverpool-West Africa trades.

In 1916 during the First World War the UK Admiralty chartered her as a troopship. On 21 February 1917 a large cargo steamship, Darro, collided with her in the English Channel south of the Isle of Wight. Mendi sank, killing 646 people, mostly black South African troops, as well as white Southern African officers and NCOs, and crew.

The new port admin building at the Port of Ngqura, South Africa (and now the headquarters building of Transnet National Ports Authority), has been named eMendi in commemoration of the SS Mendi.

Final voyage

Mendi had sailed from Cape Town carrying 823 men of the 5th Battalion the South African Native Labour Corps to serve in France. She called at Lagos in Nigeria, where a naval gun was mounted on her stern. She next called at Plymouth and then headed up the English Channel toward Le Havre in northern France, escorted by the Acorn-class destroyer HMS Brisk.

Mendi’s complement was a mixture characteristic of many UK merchant ships at the time. Officers, stewards, cooks, signallers and gunners were British; firemen and other crew were West Africans, most of them from Sierra Leone.

The South African Native Labour Corps men aboard her came from a range of social backgrounds, and from a number of different peoples spread over the South African provinces and neighbouring territories. (287 were from Transvaal, 139 from the Eastern Cape, 87 from Natal, 27 from Northern Cape, 26 from the Orange Free State, 26 from Basutoland, eight from Bechuanaland [Botswana], five from Western Cape, one from Rhodesia and one from South West Africa). Most had never seen the sea before this voyage, and very few could swim. The officers and NCOs were white Southern Africans.

Loss

At 5 am on 21 February 1917, in thick fog about 10 nautical miles (19 km) south of St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company cargo ship Darro accidentally rammed Mendi’s starboard quarter, breaching her forward hold. Darro was an 11,484 GRT ship, almost three times the size of the Mendi, sailing in ballast to Argentina to load meat. Darro survived the collision but Mendi sank, killing 616 Southern Africans, 607 of whom were black troops and nine of whom were white officers & NCOs, and 30 crew.

Some men were killed outright in the collision; others were trapped below decks. Many others gathered on Mendi’s deck as she listed and sank.

Oral history records that the men met their fate with great dignity. An interpreter, Isaac Williams Wauchope (also known as Isaac Wauchope Dyobha), who had previously served as a Minister in the Congregational Native Church of Fort Beaufort and Blinkwater, is reported to have calmed the panicked men by raising his arms aloft and crying out in a loud voice:

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do…you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers…Swazis, Pondos, Basotho…so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.”

The damaged Darro did not stay to assist, but Brisk lowered her boats, whose crews then rescued survivors.

The investigation into the accident led to a formal hearing in summer 1917, held in Caxton Hall, Westminster. It opened on 24 July, sat for five days spread over the next fortnight, and concluded on 8 August. The court found Darro’s Master, Henry W Stump, guilty of “having travelled at a dangerously high speed in thick fog, and of having failed to ensure that his ship emitted the necessary fog sound signals.” It suspended Stump’s licence for a year.

The reason for Stump’s decision not to help Mendi’s survivors has been a source of speculation. There is however no evidence of his state of mind or intention. Certainly Darro was vulnerable to attack by enemy submarines, both as a large merchant ship and having sustained damage that put her out of action for up to three months.

In 1945 Mendi’s wreck was known to be 11.3 nautical miles (21 km) off Saint Catherine’s Light, but it was not positively identified until 1974. The ship rests upright on the sea floor. She has started to break up, exposing her boilers.

In 2006 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission launched an education resource called “Let us die like brothers” to highlight the role played by black Southern Africans during the First World War. In death they are afforded the same level of commemoration as all other Commonwealth war dead.

In December 2006 English Heritage commissioned Wessex Archaeology to make an initial desk-based appraisal of the wreck. The project will identify a range of areas for potential future research and serve as the basis for a possible unintrusive survey of the wreck itself in the near future.

In 2017 the ship’s bell was handed in anonymously to a BBC journalist. The Prime Minister, Theresa May returned the bell to South Africa while on an official visit there in August 2018.

Monuments

This event is commemorated by monuments in South Africa, Britain, France and the Netherlands, as well as in the name of the port admin building at the Port of Ngqura, the eMendi Admin Building and the names of two South African Navy ships:

SAS Isaac Dyobha, a Sa’ar 4-class missile boat.
SAS Mendi, a Valour-class frigate.

Various monuments and artworks exist to commemorate the sinking and loss of life of SS Mendi.

In South Africa, Armed Forces Day was chosen as 21 February to commemorate the Mendi disaster, with the first iteration held in December 2010 when then President Jacob Zuma addressed a gathering of serving and retired soldiers, with representatives from various veterans organisations also present.

The next edition of Armed Forces Day was held in February 2013, again in the greater Pretoria area, this time Atteridgeville at the Mendi Memorial site. Since then, Armed Forces Day became bigger, with capability demonstrations, community outreach projects, ship tours, parades and flypasts. The 2024 edition was not held – nor seemingly commemorated – due to budgetary constraints and SANDF personnel and assets being committed to other taskings.

Poignantly, 21 February 2024 did not see military celebrations but the sombre repatriation to South Africa of two SA National Defence force soldiers killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a rebel mortar strike last week.

Written by Africa Ports & Ships with input from defenceWeb. The original article can be found here.