SS Mendi

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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 & 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 the First World War, Mendi was transporting 823 personnel of the 5th Battalion the South African Native Labour Corps to France. She had sailed from Cape Town to Lagos in Nigeria, where a gun was fitted to her stern, then on to Plymouth, before proceeding towards Le Havre in northern France. At 5 am, while being escorted by the destroyer HMS Brisk, Mendi was struck amidships and cut almost in half by the SS Darro (11,000 BRT), an empty meat ship bound for Argentina.

616 South Africans (607 of them black troops) plus thirty crew members, mostly British, 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 most were from the rural areas of the kingdom of Pondo in the Eastern Cape. Most of them had never seen the sea before this voyage, and very few 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, the 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."

Remarkably, the crew of the Darro made no attempt to rescue survivors, but 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 guilty of "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 loss of life in this incident remains a little-known aspect of the First World War, but so is the role of African labourers in the war.

After the War, none of the black servicemen on the Mendi (neither the survivors nor the dead), received a British war medal, nor any other members of the South African Native Labour Corps, although their white officers were decorated. This was as a consequence of a South African Government decision.[7]

Wreck site[edit]

In 1945 the wreck of Mendi was known to be located 11.3 nautical miles (20.9 km) from Saint Catherine's Light, but it was not positively identified until 1974.[8] 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 First World War . 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.[9]


This event is commemorated by a number of memorials in South Africa, Britain, France and the Netherlands, 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.[10][11]
  • Thirteen men rest in cemeteries in England, one in France and five are commemorated by memorials in the Netherlands.[11]
  • SS Mendi, UCT.jpg
    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.[11] 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".[12] The artist Madi Phala was murdered outside his house in March 2007.[13]
  • 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 the European theatre of the First World War.[11]
  • 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.[11]
  • 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.[14][15]
  • An animated short film Off the record by Wendy Morris, 2008 Artist in Residence, In Flanders Fields Museum.[16]
  • 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.[17]
  • There is a commemorative white life-saver ring (labelled "SS Mendi 21-02-1917") on public display at Simonstown's quay-side South Africa, right next to the popular "Just Nuisance" dog statue.
  • The latest form of commemoration is the SS Mendi Memorial Wall that is situated on the grounds of South Africa's oldest university The University of Cape Town, Lower Campus. The wall was completed in 2014 with the names of all the men who died in the wreck. The military had their first practice parade in Cecil Road, Rondebosch on 18 October 2014 where the wall is situated. The official parade will be held on Sunday 19 October 2014.
  • A 23 min film 'African Kinship Systems: Emotional Science – Case Study #2: The Fate of the SS Mendi' by filmmaker and visual anthropologist Dr Shawn Sobers was exhibited at the Royal West Academy (RWA) [1] - 10–31 August 2014. Sobers' exhibition included the 23min film, an alcohol libation offering, and a screen-based text piece presenting names of all the 646 men who died on the SS Mendi. The work was exhibited as part of RWA's 'Re-Membering' series presenting commissioned artists responses to World War 1.[18]

See also[edit]


  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 978-1-77007-310-4. Retrieved 2008-02-17. 
  4. ^ "The SS Mendi, A Historical Background". SA Legion - Atteridgeville Branch, Navy News. Retrieved 2008-11-20. 
  5. ^ G Swinney (2007-12-09). "The Sinking of the SS Mendi, 21 February 1917" 10 (1). 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 (1). The South African Military History Society. Retrieved 2008-11-20. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ "SS Mendi: The Legacies". Wessex Archaeology. Retrieved 2008-09-17. 
  9. ^ Wessex Archaeology
  10. ^ Canadian Encyclopedia Monuments, World Wars I and II
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Delville Wood: Sinking of the Mendi
  12. ^
  13. ^ Heritage Artwork is doubly poignant
  14. ^ War Grave Status Recognised
  15. ^ Disasters at sea: the loss of the troopship Mendi
  16. ^ Morris, Wendy. 2008. Off the record. In Flanders Fields Museum, Ieper, Belgium
  17. ^ BBC: "Lament of the SS Mendi".
  18. ^ A look at Re-Membering I - RWA: Behind the scenes, 14.8.2014

Further reading[edit]

  • Norman Clothier - Black Valour - The South African Native Labour Contingent, 1916-1918 and the Sinking of the Mendi (University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 1987) ISBN 0-86980-564-9
  • Hugh Tracey (1948). 100 Zulu Lyrics. African Music Society. Retrieved 2008-02-17. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 50°28′0″N 1°33′0″W / 50.46667°N 1.55000°W / 50.46667; -1.55000