SS Mendi re­mem­bered 100 years later

CityPress - - Voices -

The sink­ing of the SS Mendi troop­ship is one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries ever re­lated in SA’s mil­i­tary his­tory. In the dark and fog of the morn­ing of Fe­bru­ary 21 1917, the Mendi was ac­ci­den­tally rammed by an­other ship. With a deep gash in its side, the Mendi was doomed and sank. Al­most 650 men died, in­clud­ing 607 black troops of the SA Na­tive Labour Corps


World War One was the first war to be seen as global in ex­tent. The scale of death and in­jury on the Western Front was un­prece­dented.

The need for a non­com­bat­ant labour force to sup­port the fight­ing units was ob­vi­ous to the Bri­tish War Of­fice as early as 1914. The non­com­bat­ant For­eign Labour Corps were born. Soon units were formed around the Em­pire, from In­dia to the West Indies, to­talling 300 000.

Over 70 000 of them formed the SA Na­tive Labour Corps, work­ing first in Ger­man South West Africa (Namibia) and east Africa, and then in France. It was for the French port of Le Havre that the Mendi was bound in Fe­bru­ary 1917. Aboard were 824 men of the 5th Bat­tal­ion SA Na­tive Labour Corps


The Mendi was en­gaged ex­clu­sively in the im­por­tant Liver­pool-west Africa trade. It made 53 round-trip voy­ages be­tween Liver­pool and reg­u­lar ports of call in west Africa be­tween 1906 and 1916. The Mendi was char­tered by the min­istry of trans­port as a troop­ship in au­tumn 1916. It left Liver­pool in Oc­to­ber of that year, bound for La­gos where it was fit­ted out as a troop­ship.

Fol­low­ing con­ver­sion, the Mendi trans­ported Nige­rian troops to Dar es Salaam, Tan­za­nia, to fight in Ger­man East Africa.

Af­ter dis­em­bark­ing the troops, the Mendi re­turned via Dur­ban to Cape Town. There the 5th Bat­tal­ion of the SA Na­tive Labour Corps was em­barked


There are many sto­ries of brav­ery as the Mendi went down. One of them is that of the Rev Isaac Wau­chope Dy­obha (right), who cried words of en­cour­age­ment to the dy­ing men.

The men sang and stamped the death dance to­gether as the ship sank. Joseph Tshite, a school­mas­ter from near Pre­to­ria, en­cour­aged those around him with hymns and prayers un­til he died


There were 913 peo­ple on board the Mendi. Of the 802 black ser­vice­men aboard, 607 were recorded of­fi­cially as lost, along with nine of their white coun­try­men and 30 mem­bers of the ship’s crew. It is pos­si­ble that up to 140 men died trapped inside the hull, but most drowned or died of hy­pother­mia in the cold wa­ters of the English Chan­nel


A for­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the sink­ing was held at Cax­ton Hall, Lon­don in July and Au­gust 1917.

The in­quiry con­cluded that the loss of the Mendi had been caused by the mas­ter of the Darro, Henry W Stump. Some al­lowance was made for war con­di­tions, but his fail­ure to as­sist the Mendi and sur­vivors was de­scribed as ‘in­ex­cus­able’ and his mas­ter’s cer­tifi­cate was sus­pended for 12 months


1 The Mendi left Cape Town un­der con­voy with the Ke­nil­worth Cas­tle on Jan­uary 25 1917. The ves­sel was un­der the com­mand of cap­tain Henry Arthur Yard­ley. The ship called at both La­gos and Free­town and ar­rived in Ply­mouth on Fe­bru­ary 19 2 The Mendi left Ply­mouth for Le Havre on Fe­bru­ary 20 un­der es­cort by the de­stroyer HMS Brisk. The weather was over­cast with mist. By 23:30 the con­di­tions be­came foggy. Af­ter mid­night the weather be­came thicker, with fog patches 3 At 04:57 on Fe­bru­ary 21, about 20km south of the Isle of Wight, the bow of the SS Darro (above) emerged from the dark and fog. The Darro was a cargo ship, twice the size of the Mendi, en route to Ar­gentina. She was sail­ing at full speed. She ac­ci­den­tally rammed the Mendi’s star­board quar­ter. The dam­age was fa­tal and it sank within 25 min­utes. In­ex­pli­ca­bly, the Darro did not stay to as­sist

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