The SS Mendi Disaster: A Concealed World War Tragedy
The SS Mendi
At 5:00 am on February 21st, 1917, during the First World War, the formidable steamship, the SS Mendi, sank in the English Channel on route to France, killing 646 soldiers including 607 black South Africans who have served in the South African Native Labor Corps. “They were not allowed to carry weapons and were meant to work as laborers, rather than as fighting soldiers,” stressed President Zuma before laying a wreath at the Armed Forces Day celebrations in Durban.
The SS Mendi was a passenger ship, chartered by the UK Admiralty as a troopship. After colliding with a large cargo steamship, the Darro, it disappeared within less than half an hour into the freezing waters.
Oral history records that an interpreter, Isaac Williams Wauchope Dyobha—who had served as a Minister in the Congregational Native Church—calmed the panicked men by raising his arms aloft and crying out in a loud voice:
"Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is 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...Swazis, Pondos, Basotho...so 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."
The names of the SS Mendi's 646 victims appear at all memorials of the disaster.
Relevant news: Commemoration of the SS Mendi disaster.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Martie Coetser