Imvubu Newsletter

90 Years On: The Sinking of the SS Mendi

© Victor, S. 2007 Imvubu 19:1, 1, 7.

Cordeaux and Farrow’s 1921 architectural drawing of King William’s Town’s memorial to the Great War (1914-18) is part of the Amathole Museum’s photographic collection. Included on the war memorial plaque are the names of eight men from King William’s Town who died exactly ninety years ago during one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century to occur in British waters resulting in the accidental sinking of the troopship, SS Mendi. The names of the men are Robert Madosi, James P. Bambili, George Nini, John Clout, Durwood/ward, Squire Nodolo, Style Tetani and Kleinbooi Petela. The memorial was erected with funds raised by public subscription.

The SS Mendi had left Cape Town on 16 January 1917 with 802 members of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) on board. After calling at Plymouth, the Mendi was en route to the French port of La Havre. In the early hours of 21 February, approximately 12 miles off St. Catherine’s Point on the Isle Of Wight, the 11 000 ton liner, SS Darro, travelling at full speed in thick fog and sounding no fog signals, rammed the Mendi on her starboard side almost cutting her in half. The Darro backed out of the hole she had caused and the sea poured into the breach on the Mendi. She immediately started to list to starboard and sink, disappearing under the sea in about 25 minutes. Despite numerous individual acts of heroism, 615 members of the SANLC were drowned in the incident.

The troops on board were mostly asleep. For men not used to the hazards of the sea, the collision must have been a terrifying experience. In some accounts of the incident it has been stated that the men from the SANLC were mostly from the rural areas of Mpondoland in the Eastern Cape. However, a glance at the military nominal role of the dead (dated 21/2/1917) shows the foregoing statement to be incorrect because many Sotho names are included, quite apart from those that are clearly Xhosa, Mfengu, Zulu and Swazi.

Oral history records that the men of the SANLC met their fate with great dignity. It is told that a number of them, who remained on board, performed a death dance on the tilting deck before the Mendi finally plunged beneath the ocean. In the shock and confusion, their chaplain, Rev Isaac Wauchope1, emerged as a remarkable figure. He reportedly calmed the men by raising his arms aloft and crying out in prayer:

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.

The foregoing statement is, nowadays, attributed to the Rev. Isaac Dyobha, but a glance at the fore-mentioned nominal role of the dead shows no such person to have been on board the Mendi. It is the Rev. Isaac Wauchope who is actually referred to here and he was known to have enlisted in the SANLC as chaplain. One wonders on what authority of evidence a name of an historical figure can be changed to make it ‘politically correct’ without wittingly or unwittingly altering the integrity of history itself?

The veracity of the story has never been confirmed. Indeed, none of the survivors’ accounts describe the ‘death dance’ in any detail, which might simply be myth that has become interwoven with the event. S. E. K. Mqhayi also does not refer to it in his poem, ‘Ukutshona kukaMendi’ (‘The Sinking of the Mendi’), published in 1927. The SS Mendi sank rapidly in the dark and it is unlikely that a ‘death dance’ could have been organized in the ensuing confusion on deck. Nevertheless, the tradition was immortalized by the South African press. Historian Albert Grundlingh doubts the death dance ever took place. According to him, oral traditions concerning the ‘death dance’ were in circulation during and shortly after the Second World War (1939-1945), and are significant precisely because they mythologized the events. By the 1940s, he writes, the Mendi tragedy had acquired a symbolic dimension with nationalist overtones in collective African memory. Commemoration services, known as Mendi Day, were held annually on 21 February and became a rallying point for raising black political consciousness.

The inquest into the tragedy found the Captain of the SS Darro, H. W. Stump, responsible for the collision. He was accused of having travelled at a dangerously high speed in thick fog and failed to ensure that his ship sounded the necessary fog signals. As a consequence, the Master of the Darro had his licence suspended for a year. His failure to render assistance to the Mendi’s survivors was also questioned and is the source of much controversy. His ship merely floated nearby while lifeboats from the Mendi’s escorting destroyer, the HMS Brisk, rowed among the survivors trying to rescue them.

Among the South Africans lost were some prominent Mpondo men such as the chiefs Henry Bokleni, Dokoda Richard Ndamase and Mxonywa Bangani. When news of the disaster was received on the 9 March 1917, the South African House of Assembly, led by Prime Minister Louis Botha, rose from their seats in respect for the dead. Despite the gesture, black non-combatants returning home from service abroad received none of the customary acknowledgements of war service, such as campaign ribbons or medals, which were accorded to combatants and nurses.

Between 1916 and 1918, about 21 000 black South African volunteers served in France with the SANLC. They were not used as a fighting force and were forbidden to bear arms. Although recruitment had the active support of many African political leaders, it was not as successful as had been hoped, owing to distrust of the government’s intentions. Encouraged by their chiefs and by Mqhayi’s earlier poem, ‘The Black Army’, many did volunteer their services.

The SANLC formed part of a labour force that also consisted of French, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Egyptian and Canadian labourers and German prisoners of war. By the time the unit disbanded in 1918, the men had mostly been employed in non-combatant roles in French ports, where they unloaded ships and loaded trains with supplies for the front. The SANLC also laboured in quarries, laid and repaired roads and railway lines and cut copious quantities of timber.

Lately, the sinking of the Mendi has been the source of much interest. One of the new Valour class corvettes has been named the SAS Mendi, while a warrior class strike craft has been renamed the SAS Isaac Dyobha. The Mendi has also given its name to South Africa’s highest award for courage, the Order of the Mendi, bestowed by the President on South African citizens who have performed outstanding acts of bravery.

The Mendi dead are remembered at the Hollybrook Memorial ‘for those that have no grave but the sea’ in Southhampton, England. In 1986 a plaque at the Delville Wood Museum in France was erected in honour of the men who died in the tragedy. A little known memorial in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth and the new Mendi memorial in Avalon graveyard, Soweto also commemorate the disaster. Next time you pass the War Memorial in King William’s Town spare a thought for the men of the SANLC who died in the sinking of the Mendi 90 years ago. Sadly, the war memorial is now, like Edward Street military cemetery, the haunt of hobos who imbibe alcohol, sleep, vomit and relieve themselves there, which is enough to put off even the most battle hardened tourist.


(1.) Rev Isaac Wauchope (1852-1917) adopted his surname from a British General who fought, somewhat unsuccessfully, against the Boers in the Queenstown-Jamestown area during the opening phase of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1903). He is, nowadays, referred to by his original surname, Dyobha, for obvious reasons, but the pseudonym under which he published most of his poetry was Citashe. Ed.

Source: Clothier, N, Black Valour – The South African Native Labour Contingent, 1916-1918 and the Sinking of the Mendi, University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 1987.

Photo Captions:

(1.) Architectural sketch of the war memorial in King William’s Town.

(2.) The SS Mendi was 370 ft long with a beam of 46 ft. She served on the Liverpool to West Africa run until chartered by the British government in 1916.