SS Mendi remembered 100 years later
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
LOSS OF LIVES
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