SS Mendi

SS Mendi.jpg
SS Mendi
Career (Great Britain) Civil Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg
Class and type: Passenger ship
Name: SS Mendi
Namesake: Mendi
Owner: British and African Steam Navigation Company
Builder: Alexander Stephen and Sons, Glasgow, Scotland
Launched: 1905
Status: Requisitioned, 1916
Career (Great Britain) Royal Navy Ensign
Reclassified: Troopship, 1916
Fate: Sank following a collision with SS Darro in 1917
General characteristics
Class and type: Steamship
Tonnage: 4230 gross tons[1]

SS Mendi was a steamship of the Elder Dempster Line, chartered by the British government as a troopship, which sank off the Isle of Wight in 1917 with the loss of 646 lives. The Mendi sinking is considered one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the South African military, and was one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century in British waters.



On 21 February 1917, during World War I, the Mendi was transporting 823 members of the 5th Battalion, South African Native Labour Corps to France. She had sailed from Cape Town via Lagos, where a gun was fitted to her stern, to Plymouth, before proceeding towards Le Havre. At 5am, while under escort of the destroyer HMS Brisk, she was struck and cut almost in half by the Argentina.

616 South Africans (607 of them black troops) plus 30 British crew members died in the disaster.[2]

The men on the ship of the South African Labour Corps came from a wide range of social backgrounds, and from a number of South African peoples, but the majority were from the rural areas of the Pondo Kingdom in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Most of them had never seen the sea before this voyage. Very few of them could swim. The White South Africans were officers and NCOs. Some men were killed outright in the collision, and some were trapped below decks. Many however gathered on the listing deck of the Mendi.

Oral history records that the men met their fate with great dignity. Their chaplain, Reverend Isaac Dyobha, is reported to have calmed the panicked men by raising his arms aloft and crying out in a loud voice:[3]

"Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to 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...Swazis, Pondos, let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies."

Notably, the crew of the Darro made no attempt to rescue survivors. Lifeboats from HMS Brisk rowed among the survivors, trying to rescue them.[4]

The investigation into the accident found the captain of the Darro, Henry W Stump, to be at fault for "having travelled at a dangerously high speed in thick fog, and of having failed to ensure that his ship emitted the necessary fog sound signals."[5] As a result, the captain of the Darro had his licence suspended for a year. His failure to render assistance to the Mendi's survivors has been the source of much controversy. Some historians have suggested that racial prejudice influenced his conduct, while others hold that he merely lost his nerve.[6]

The incident remains a somewhat forgotten aspect of World War I, both in terms of the loss of life and in relation to the role of African labourers in the war.

Wreck site

The wreck was located 11.3 nautical miles (20.9 km) from Saint Catherine's Light in 1945, but was not positively identified until 1974.[7] The ship is sitting upright on the ocean floor, but has started to break up, exposing her boilers.

In 2006, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission launched an education resource called "Let us die like brothers" to highlight the role played by black South Africans during the World War I. Although they were treated as inferior while alive, in death they are afforded the same level of commemoration as all other Commonwealth war dead.

In December 2006, English Heritage commissioned Wessex Archaeology to undertake an initial desk-based appraisal of the wreck. The project will identify a range of areas for potential future research and serve as the basis for a possible non-intrusive survey of the wreck itself in the near future.[8]


This event is commemorated by a number of memorials in South Africa, Britain, France and Holland, as well as in the names of two South African Navy ships:

Memorials, ceremonies and other ways, such as artworks, in which the loss of men of the SS Mendi has been commemorated include:

  • Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, bearing the names of the men of the SS Mendi who had no known graves.[9][10]
  • Thirteen men rest in cemeteries in England, one in France and five are commemorated by memorials in Holland.[10]
  • Mendi Memorial on an embankment at the Mowbray campus of the University of Cape Town, at the site where men of the South African Native Labour Contingent were billeted before embarking on the ill-fated SS Mendi.[10] This is a sculpture, by Cape Town artist Madi Phala, and represents a mock ship's prow cast in heavy metal, sinking into the ground. In front of it are helmets, hats and discs, symbolising the men, officers and crew of the SS Mendi. A plaque simply reads "SS Mendi, S. African troopship, sank next to the Isle of Wight 1917 02 21". The artist Madi Phala was murdered outside his house in March 2007.[11]
  • Delville Wood Commemorative Museum bronze fresco and panel bearing names of men lost in the SS Mendi disaster.[10]
  • The Order of the Mendi Decoration for Bravery, bestowed by the President of South Africa on citizens who have performed extraordinary acts of bravery.[10]
  • In 2006, The Commonwealth War Graves Commission and History Channel released a 20-minute film, Let Us Die Like Brothers, about the SS Mendi disaster and the involvement of Black South Africans in World War I in Europe.[10]
  • On 21 July 2007, a ceremony took place at the Hollybrook Memorial, Southampton, followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at the site of the tragedy by the SAS Mendi.[10]
  • In March 2009, recognition by the UK Ministry of Defence that the site of the sunken SS Mendi be an official war grave – thanks to a campaign by retired Major Ned Middleton.[12][13]
  • A painted triptych, The loss of the Mendi, by Hilary Graham, at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Museum of Art, Port Elizabeth.[10]
  • An animated short film Off the record by Wendy Morris, 2008 Artist in Residence, In Flanders Fields Museum.[14]
  • A radio documentary The Lament of the SS Mendi was broadcast on BBC Radio Four on 19 November 2008. Scottish poet Jackie Kay looked into the history of the sinking and recited her own memorial poem.[15]

See also


  1. ^ Newsletter 341, South Africa Military History Society
  2. ^ "Memorial wreath laying for the SS Mendi and her crew". South African Navy. Retrieved 2006-04-10. 
  3. ^ Mike Boon (2008). The African Way: The Power of Interactive Leadership. Zebra. ISBN 9781770073104. Retrieved 2008-02-17. 
  4. ^ The SS Mendi, A Historical Background. Retrieved 2008-11-20. 
  5. ^ G Swinney (2007-12-09). The Sinking of the SS Mendi, 21 February 1917. 10. The South African Military History Society. Retrieved 2008-02-17. 
  6. ^ G Swinney (2007-12-09). The Sinking of the SS Mendi, 21 February 1917. 10. The South African Military History Society. Retrieved 2008-11-20. 
  7. ^ "SS Mendi: The Legacies". Wessex Archaeology. Retrieved 2008-09-17. 
  8. ^ Wessex Archaeology
  9. ^ Canadian Encyclopedia Monuments, World Wars I and II
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Delville Wood: Sinking of the Mendi
  11. ^ Heritage Artwork is doubly poignant
  12. ^ War Grave Status Recognised
  13. ^ Disasters at sea: the loss of the troopship Mendi
  14. ^ Morris, Wendy. 2008. Off the record. In Flanders Fields Museum, Ieper, Belgium
  15. ^ BBC: "Lament of the SS Mendi".

Further reading

External links

Coordinates: 50°28′0″N 1°33′0″W / 50.466667°N 1.55°W / 50.466667; -1.55

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