This year marks 100 years since the sinking of the SS Mendi, a maritime disaster off the coast of the Isle of Wight that resulted in the death of close to 650 people. It was one of the 20th century’s worst maritime disasters in UK waters, yet very few people are aware of the story. Many speculate that it is because of who was on board the ship at the time of its sinking, that the story of the SS Mendi is not as well known as it ought to be.
The SS Mendi was a British passenger steamship that was chartered as a troopship during the First World War. The British desperately needed labour at the French ports as ship shortages meant that ships had to be unloaded and returned to transport duties as quickly as possible. Their answer lay in cheap labour recruited from South Africa and other British colonies. The South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) was formed by the South African government in 1916 in response to Britain’s request for workers, with some 25 000 people recruited in its two years of operation.
Eight hundred and twenty-three members of the 5th Battalion of the SANLC were on board the SS Mendi at the time of its sinking. Most of the men had never seen the sea before this voyage, and very few could swim, with the result that the majority of them died when, on the 21st February 1917, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company cargo ship, Darro, accidentally rammed the SS Mendi. The ship took 25 minutes to sink, taking with her 616 South African men and 30 British crew. It is purported that the Darro made no effort at all to rescue the men in the water, with the result that those who didn’t drown, died of exposure to the frigid waters.
Also on board the Mendi was Chaplain Rev Isaac Dyobha , a Congregational minister, political activist, and enthusiastic campaigner for the establishment of the University of Fort Hare. The speech that Dyobha is said to have given to the men is now legendary:
Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, 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 with our bodies
The reference Dyobha made to leaving to weapons at home has to do with the fact that the South African government had agreed to send the men to serve only as labourers – they had insisted that they not be given weapons.
After the war none of the black servicemen on the Mendi, or any other members of the SANLC, received a British War Medal or ribbon. This was at the bequest of the South African government of the time. As part of the centenary commemoration of the sinking of the SS Mendi, memorial commemorative medals were presented to surviving family members of the deceased.
Referencing Rev Dyobha’s final words, the film Let Us Die Like Brothers follows the story of a Xhosa boy named Samuel, as he uses the Mendi tragedy to explore the lives of the black South Africans who enlisted, looking at the way they were treated, and the legacy of their sacrifice.