On the 6th January 1917 the SS Mendi set sail from Cape Town to Le Havre, carrying 805 members of the Native South African Labour Corps to Le Havre. The ship was rammed off the Isle of Wight in severe mist by SS Darro on 21st February 1917, a vessel over twice the side of the ‘Mendi’ and travelling at top speed. Some 607 members of the South African Native Labour Corps lost their lives along with 9 officers and 33 crew members. Mr. Hendry Winchester Stump, the master of the Darro was later censured by the official Inquiry into the disaster ‘for not complying with the regulations as to sound signals and speed in a fog, and by his more serious default in failing without any reasonable cause ….to render assistance. ” In other words the cause of the collision was due to said master mariner’s negligence and he didn’t even assist the ship that he caused to sink. Stump’s defence was that he thought he had run into a torpedo ship and that there were no signs of distress signals coming from SS Mendi. His certificate to sail was suspended for a year.
The SS Mendi sunk in 20 minutes . The official Inquiry found that practically all rafts were launched and nearly all the survivors and those who perished had lifeboats on. Bodies of those who died were buried near where they were washed up , some even reaching the Dutch coast. Some 200 men were rescued from the icy water via lifeboats launched by the accompanying vessel HMS Brisk.
A South African poet, Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi ( 1875- 1945) wrote a poem titled ‘Sinking of the Mendi’ , originally in in the Xhosa dialect . In an on line extract from ‘Cross Currents’ journal written by Chris Dunton, Mqhavi was present when S.S. Mendi sailed from Cape Town.
To quote the last two verses
“Be consoled, all you orphans!
Be consoled, all you young widows!
Somebody has to die, so that something can be built;
Somebody has to serve, so that others can live;
With these words we say: be consoled,
This is how we build ourselves, as ourselves.
Remember the saying of the old people:
“Nothing comes down, without coming down.”
Awu! The finest of Africa was busy dying!
The ship couldn’t carry its precious cargo,
It was echoing into the inner circles,
Their brave blood faced the King of Kings.
Their deaths had a purpose for all of us
How I wish I could be with them,
How I wish I could stand with them on resurrection day,
How I wish I could sparkle with them like the morning star.
Let it be so! ”
The full text of the poem can be found here
What;’s startling is the lack of any trace of ‘Disenchantment’ in the poem. So far I’ve not been able to work out the date that it was written. 1931 is the most likely date of first publication. The Christian notion of sacrifice is evoked in the first verse quoted above, seems so contrary to the grim irony of fictionalised war memoir that was emerging in Britain, the antithesis of say Richard Aldington’s ‘Death of a Hero’.
On the 3rd February 2016 Professor Albert Grundlingh (Stellenbosch University) gave a talk at Brighton University titled ‘Mutating Memories and the Making of Myth: Remembering the SS Mendi Disaster 1997-2007’ , advising that according to popular perception, some 100 men of different tribes united to perform a dance of death on the sinking ship. Professor Grundlingh suggested that this might not have actually occurred, yet stressed the concept of ‘bravery reflects the nation’ : What was paramount was to show African men who had not sailed before, travelling to assist in a European War facing death without fear.
A discussion followed. One researcher stressing that the sentence imposted by the Court of Inquiry seemed very lenient, and could well have been higher if the majority of those who died had been white. Another discussed how the commemoration of those who died on their way to fight, gets overlooked.
The South African Navy website page on the SS Mendi reports the dance of the men on the sinking ship as a fact. The same webpage repeats a claim that a minister on board the ship stated ;
Be quite and calm my countrymen, for what is taking place now is what you came here to do. We are all going to die, and that is what we came for. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Zulu, say here and now that you are all my brothers… Xhosas, Swazis, Pondos, Basotho 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…”
(The Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha)
From the ‘Great War at Sea Poetry’ perspective, the dynamic between the poem and what might have happened in the last 20 minutes as the Mendi was sinking is complicated. It’s hard to work out whether the poem is helping to build a myth, or is a creation of a myth,. Perhaps the poem is broadly accurate in that the men faced death with incredible courage. The fact that so many lifebelts were distributed and rafts launched in such terrible conditions was an achievement.
Other poems from South Africa about the sinking of the Mendi have emerged as late as 2007 and can be found on the Delville Wood website.
Nearly hundred years on we are living in a era where colonialism and imperialism are no longer justifiable. Remembering the plight of the South African Native Labour Corps who travelled so far to assist in a war which was so far away hopefully will lead to a more inclusive commemoration of the Great War dead.
Many thanks to the members of the South East History Boards, particularly to Noel Craggs, for their help.
Also to Lucy London of the Forgotten Poets of World War 1 blog.
A Commonwealth War Graves Commission endorsed short film about the Mendi -‘Let Us Die Like Brothers ‘ can be found here.
The South East History Boards Forum can be found here .
The Forgotten Poets of World War 1 blog