They died like warriors: tale of the SS Mendi

Few Britons have heard of the SS Mendi. To South Africans, its sinking was a defining moment. Today, 90 years on, a ceremony off the Isle of Wight honours 649 men who died in circumstances that remain both shocking and inspiring. Andy McSmith reports
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The Independent Online

About 12 miles south of the most southern tip of the Isle of Wight, at the bottom of the English Channel, lies the upright, rusting wreck of a naval ship and the bones of its passengers and crew.

There it has lain for 90 years, an almost forgotten casualty of the First World War. After the war was over, memorials went up in almost every town and village in the UK, and all over northern France, but there was nothing to commemorate the hundreds who died in the sinking of the SS Mendi, except for a memorial at a Southampton cemetery dedicated to all those lost at sea. It was as if the waters had not just closed over the ship, but over all memory of a horrible, humiliating episode.

But the memory is returning. Today, a South African ship, the SAS Amatola, will sail from Portsmouth and halt over the spot where the SS Mendi lies on the seabed. The last post will sound. There will be two minutes' silence. Then South Africa's Minister of Defence, Mosiua Lekota, will throw a wreath into the sea. It will be an unusual ceremony, not least because of the distance many of its participants have travelled to be there.

What made the victims of this disaster different from the millions of others who died in the Great War? There are two answers. The simplest is that they were black and, as such, not considered proper combatants.

The contribution to the Allied war effort by South African recruits has been quietly forgotten, until recently. Nearly 25,000 black men left their homes to travel thousands of miles to the killing fields of France and Belgium - but not to fight. They were members of the Native Labour Corps, sent halfway across the world to dig quarries, build and repair roads and railway lines, load and unload ships, and cut timber. They worked alongside Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Egyptian labourers, and German prisoners of war. Fighting was the white man's business. "The irony of our history and of colonialism," Nelson Mandela once remarked, "is that even when the oppressed were prepared to set aside their grievances and to support the war effort of the Crown, often colonial governments would only allow whites to bear arms."

Speaking at a memorial dinner at the South African embassy in London on Thursday night, the High Commissioner, Dr Lindiwe Mabuza, pointed out that this was not the only way in which black recruits were made to feel different from whites. "Among the Native Labour Corps were many respected warriors and leaders, who found themselves relegated to supporting roles under the command of white commissioned officers, utilised as labourers to dig trenches and perform other tasks that required muscle," she said.

"They were housed in closed compounds, isolated from social contact with Europeans, not unlike the camps which were used to hold the German PoWs in France. Such was the way in which the demon of racism and prejudice blinded the powers-that-be during the First World War and continued to blind the powers-that-be in South Africa until 1994."

White South Africans also went north to fight, and when they got home, were rewarded with medals and land. Black recruits from neighbouring British protectorates were also decorated. But the South African government decided not to award any medals to its black citizens.

About 1,300 of the black recruits never made it back home. There were 333 who died in France, most of whom are buried in the British cemetery at Arques-la-Bataille. Those who did make it back to South Africa were not given land, like their white compatriots; instead, they were given bicycles.

But that is only part of the reason why the dignitaries of South Africa have travelled so far to lay their wreath today. The main reason is the horrific - but also inspiring - nature of the story of the sinking of the Mendi.

The 823 men of the 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps who boarded the SS Mendi in Cape Town in January 1917 were among the last contingents to travel north for the First World War. Nearly four weeks later, the 4,230-ton troop ship reached Portsmouth, after stopping off at Lagos and Sierra Leone. From Portsmouth, they set off to cross to Le Havre, where the men were to disembark and begin work.

Just before 5am on 21 February, the Mendi was struck by a much larger vessel, the 11,484-ton British mail ship, SS Darro. Anxious to avoid German submarines, the Darro had been travelling at full speed, in thick fog, without sounding its fog warnings. It penetrated about 20ft (six metres) into the Mendi.

An unknown number of men were killed straight away. Others were trapped below deck. The ship had been pushed over sideways, submerging all the lifeboats on the starboard side. The lifeboats and rafts on the port were launched, but having been ripped almost in two, the ship sank in just 25 minutes and most of the men still alive were pitched into the icy water, unable to see more than a few feet ahead. Very few could swim. All 33 British crew members, nine white officers and NCOs, and 607 Africans died.

There were two ships nearby. The destroyer, HMS Brisk, lowered its lifeboats to help bring more than 200 survivors to safety. But the Darro, whose captain was responsible for the tragedy, did nothing. The reason was never properly established. It is possible that Captain Henry Stump simply panicked, but a long, lingering suspicion is that he and his officers deliberately left the men to die in icy water, rather than have black men on board their ship. An inquest had judged that Captain Stump was to blame for the accident, and issued what was considered to be a suitable punishment. His licence was suspended for a year.

When news of the deaths reached South Africa, on 9 March, the House of Assembly stood, as a token of respect. There is a story that when the authorities went to convey the news to the black tribes, they already knew what had happened.

The survivors were set to work in France. In July 1917, the King met some of them at Rouen. One, Koos Matli, recalled: "One day we were all called together and we went to another ship. On the deck we met King George V and Queen Mary. The King addressed us personally and thanked us for the services we had rendered. He told us that we were going home within a few days, and when we reached home we must tell our chiefs and fathers how he had thanked us."

But the relatives of the dead received no compensation, no apology, nor even a formal notification from the authorities about how they had died.

As Black South Africa has rediscovered its history, however, the fame of the victims of the SS Mendi disaster has grown. South Africa's highest award for courage is now the Order of the Mendi Decoration for Bravery. Old eyewitness stories of the bravery exhibited by the doomed men have become legendary. The most famous story is that of the death dance that the men performed as the ship went down.

They were led by the chaplain, the Rev Isaac Dyobha, whose grandson is in Britain for the memorial ceremonies. Mr Dyobha was heard calling out: "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 are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies."

Later, the voices of men dying from hypothermia in the sea could be heard through the fog, calling out: "Ho, 'so-and-so', child of my mother, are you dead that you do not hear my voice?"

There was Joseph Tshite, a schoolmaster who encouraged the drowning men with hymns. A white sergeant is said to have been supported by two black compatriots, who found a place for him on a piece of flotsam.

Dr Mabuza said: "As part of the process of reconciliation in South Africa, we have begun to take steps at last to recognise properly those who gave their lives at home and on foreign soil and, in the case of the SS Mendi, at the same time bringing South Africa and the UK still closer together."