Brenda Sheperd talks on The 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the SS Mendi

29 January 2017
Brenda Sheperd talks on The 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the SS Mendi

It was a volatile time in South Africa at the outbreak of the First World War. Only 12 years had passed since the end of the Anglo Boer War which had bitterly divided the nation.  Those South Africans of British descent and Afrikaners loyal to General Botha automatically regarded themselves involved in the war while another section of Afrikaners openly rebelled grasping the war as an opportunity to regain independence outside the British Empire.  Eight years had passed since the Zulu Rebellion where between 3000 and 4000 Zulus had been killed and the Zulu king, Dinizulu deposed and sent into exile. In addition, the promulgation of the Land Act in 1913 which legislated Africans were not able to own or rent land outside of designated reserves; an area of approximately 7% of South Africa further served to alienate the black South Africans. 

In 1916 while the Battle of the Somme was still raged and SA mourned its dead of Delville Wood, the British Government asked General Botha in an exchange of correspondence not made public to recruit 10 000 black soldiers to serve in labour battalions under Imperial command in France in order to relieve active white men for duty. An imperial command was important to Botha as it meant that little or no expense to South Africa was involved so the matter would not have to be approved by Parliament where the Opposition could be expected to be hostile to the idea instead it could be dealt with on an administrative level.

From around South Africa and from the British Protectorates of Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland men came forward. Among them were chiefs, sons of chiefs, labourers from the mines as well as a number of educated men. Although many of these men would have preferred to fight, they saw their participation in the war as a means to show loyalty to King and country in the hope that after the war, the lot of Africans in South Africa would improve. For others, it was the adventure to travel, to see the lands across the water that they would not otherwise have the opportunity to do.  There was also a financial benefit; not only would those who enlisted would be exempt from hut tax but the pay given to the black soldiers was in excess of the amount South African white soldiers in France were receiving. Black soldiers were to receive 3 pounds per month while the men of the first infantry got 1 Pound. Also, the African soldiers enlisted for a period of 12 months whereas their white counterparts enlisted for the duration of the war. 

By train, they were sent to the military depot in Rosebank, Cape Town. Here the recruits were issued with uniforms and drilled like regular soldiers. Although, they did not carry guns they were nonetheless subject to military discipline and martial law. 

On 16 January 1917, 802 black soldiers together with 5 white officers and 17 NCOs boarded the SS Mendi in Cape Town harbour. There is a misconception that most of these men came from the Eastern Cape but sources show that 287 of these men were from Transvaal, 139 from the Eastern Cape, 87 from Natal, 27 from Northern Cape, 26 from the Orange Free State, 26 from Basutoland, eight from Bechuanaland (Botswana), five from Western Cape, one from Rhodesia and one from South West Africa

The SS Mendi was a cargo ship with a gross tonnage of 4230 tons, 370 feet in length and 46 feet in width. Of the four holds, three were converted to troop accommodation.  Wooden bunks were fitted which extended up from the floor to ceiling like the shelves of bookcases, each to accommodate 4 soldiers. Space allocated to each man was 0,87 of a cubic meter in an area that had little light or ventilation. 

SS Mendi was commanded by Captain Henry Yardley who had been at sea for many years and had been a master of a number of ships since his first command in 1901.  The ship was manned by a crew of 88 including the officers, who were mostly British. Together with the number of soldiers, this brought the total to 915 men on board of 4230 tons. 

On board, the Mendi carried 6 lifeboats which could accommodate 298 persons. These were allocated to the captain and the crew with few places allocated for soldiers. For the soldiers and their officers, 43 life rafts were allocated. These were tied down at various places around the ship; on top of the wash houses and holds. 

On 16 January 2017, the SS Mendi set sail from Cape Town harbour in convoy of five other troop ships under the escort of the British destroyer, HMS Cornwall.  Unlike the Mendi, all were ocean going liners before the war. Amongst them was the Kenilworth Castle carrying 1500 South African troops while the others all carried Australian troops. 

The convoy stopped at Freetown in Sierra Leone but no shore leave was given to the troops on board the Mendi. Instead, they assisted in off-loading the cargo of gold on board the Mendi and transferring it to the Cornwall and loading supplies in its place. The following morning, the Cornwall set sail leaving the convoy to face the remaining two weeks of voyage unescorted through waters known to have enemy submarines. After 34 days at sea, the convoy arrived in England. 

 At 5pm on 20 February 1917, the Mendi set sail from Plymouth for Le Havre under escort of HMS Brisk. At 04.55, in thick fog, SS Darro rammed the Mendi at full speed almost cutting the ship in half. She struck on the starboard side between No.1 & 2 holds where many soldiers lay sleeping.

During the voyage from Cape Town, boat drill had been practiced every day. Now in the pitch black, the whistle shrilled four short blasts for the men to fall in. Just as they had practiced, the men assembled at their stations strapping on the lifebelts that had been issued to them at the start of the voyage. There is no record of panic.  Within minutes, the deck tilted to one side as the holds began to fill with water. The Mendi sank within 25 minutes. 

In London, at the instigation of the South African Government together with the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society, a hearing was held to establish causality of the large loss of life. Of the 802 soldiers on board 609 had perished together with Lieutenants Emslie & Richardson and 6 white NCOs. A total of 616 South Africans and 30 crew members of the Mendi had perished in the icy waters of the English Channel.

Amongst the soldiers who perished was 64 year old Xhosa minister, Isaac Wauchope Dyobha. His conscience would not let him go to war as a man of God, so he enlisted as an Interpreter.  Educated at Lovedale in the Eastern Cape, Isaac spoke English, Xhosa, Zulu & Sotho and he had a good understanding of Greek & Latin.  Like many others he thought that to answer the call of king and country would be a great opportunity to acquire a just and recognised status as loyal subjects of the Crown. 

The legend surrounding Isaac Wauchope Dyhoba and the death drill on board the sinking ship has never been substantiated but it forms part of oral tradition. As the ship was sinking, he is purported to have called out to the soldiers that were too petrified to jump into the black waters:

“Be quiet and calm, my brothers, for what is taking place now 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 drill of death. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our weapons at our home, our voices are left in our bodies.” 

Xhosa poet, S.E.K. Mqhayi wrote two poems about the South African Native Labour Contingent. In his poem Ukutshona kuka Mendi (The sinking of the Mendi) published in 1927, he makes no mention of the death dance. 

At the inquiry, Captain Stump was found to be guilty. It was found that after the Darro had struck the Mendi, she had reversed out and came to a stop within 200 yards of the sinking ship. For 4 hours, the Darro remained stationary. On board, the voices and cries of men in the water could clearly be heard through the fog but no order was given to lower a lifeboat even after 2 life boats from the Mendi came alongside and survivors reported that a troop ship had been sunk and soldiers were in the water.  It was found that had Stump got his boats out as soon as he found his ship was in no danger of sinking, many more lives would have in all probability been saved.  As a result, his master’s licence was suspended for a period of one year. The Report of the Court was printed and circulated to interested parties. Thereafter, it was classified a secret document not to be released for the next 50 years.

The 195 survivors went on to France where they worked in the harbours unloading ships, digging trenches, felling trees and in the quarries. They were housed in closed compounds similar to the South African mine compounds at the time. On 10 July 1917 at Abbeville in France, King George V, Queen Mary and the Prince of Wales together with Sir Douglas Haig inspected a parade of officers and soldiers of the South African Native Labour Contingent. 

Amongst those soldiers chosen to meet the King was Corporal Alfred Tshingane, nephew of Zulu Chief Dinuzulu. Chief Mamabolo was introduced to the King. He came from near Pietersburg in the Northern Transvaal. Not only had he sent hundreds of his men to the army, he had come himself although he was advanced in years. Also present were 6 black soldiers who had been through German South West Africa, 5 of whom had also served in German East Africa. It is on record that the King was much impressed with the fine appearance and dignified and soldierly bearing of his black subjects. 

A source of much bitterness was the non-awarding of medals to the black South African members of the Contingent through awards of the British War Medals were made to their white officers and NCOs and to the black soldiers of the Protectorates. The British Government awarded this medal in silver to white and in bronze to non-white soldiers who had the appropriate service. The Contingent soldiers qualified for it and the British Government approved the award but the South African Government could not see its way to issuing the medals. Some of these men signed up for Second World War and at the end of it, they received their medals. The final decision regarding the non-issuing of medals seems to have been taken in 1925, by which time the Nationalist-Labour coalition was in power, General JBM Hertzog was Prime Minister. 

It was only in 1974 that the wreck of the SS Mendi was identified when a diver discovered a plate on the ocean floor. By the insignia of the ship-owner, British and African Steam Navigation Company, the identification was made.  The Mendi rests 40m below the surface in deep, murky, water.  She sits upright on the sea bed. Parts of the bow and stern are quite well preserved but she has broken apart in the middle. Parts of the boilers and engine can be seen.  Although the wreck has been declared a war grave, pieces have been brought to the surface by divers as souvenirs or to sell. Some have been given to museums in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and on the Isle of Wight. 

Today, the memory of the men of the Mendi lives on. The highest award for valour bestowed on South Africans is the Order of the Mendi. The South African Navy has a Corvette named SAS Mendi as well as a strike craft named  Isaac Dyobha.

“It may be too late to put right a wrong which has happened so long ago but remembering their names will bring honour to their lost souls.” The words of a  Sangoma given to me during the course of my research.

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