The SS Mendi Disaster: A Concealed World War Tragedy

Updated on February 1, 2020
SS Mendi
SS Mendi | Source
Click thumbnail to view full-size
Mendi Memorial, South Africa @ InvisionzoneMendi Memorial - Delville Wood, FranceMendi Memorial, South Africa
Mendi Memorial, South Africa @ Invisionzone
Mendi Memorial, South Africa @ Invisionzone
Mendi Memorial - Delville Wood, France
Mendi Memorial - Delville Wood, France | Source
Mendi Memorial, South Africa
Mendi Memorial, South Africa | Source

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 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."

The names of the SS Mendi's 646 victims appear at all memorials of the disaster.

Relevant news: Commemoration of the SS Mendi disaster.

 Delville Wood South African National Memorial
Delville Wood South African National Memorial | Source
Noordwijk General Cemetry, Zuid-Holland, where 5 South African Mendi victims rest
Noordwijk General Cemetry, Zuid-Holland, where 5 South African Mendi victims rest | Source

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


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    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      Hi, Jackie Lynnley – The news is a soap-opera and reality show in one. Big Brother comes to mind. May God keep all of us well and safe :)

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      3 years ago from the beautiful south

      Guess the world is the same the world over and wow do I know what it is liked to be hooked on news. I laugh at myself sometimes for most of my life I could care less and certainly not into politics, but the last few years have grabbed me. I guess we worry when our world is full of loved ones but now our elections are over things still will not settle down and of course I must see what is happening today!

      God bless you and may our savior keep you well and safe until His return for us.

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      FlourishAnyway – The poaching of our rhinos is an unbearable tragedy, but the Chinese, Koreans, and poacher-syndicates don’t give a damn, as they are all animals, killing their prey without qualms of conscience. And rhino poaching is not all! I’m going to tell you about another tragedy soon: Our donkeys being skinned for the Chinese market! The Chinese seems to be way behind when it comes to medical science and the protection of animals. They see animals only as food and (fake) medicine. And in order to get it, they exploit the greedy, the ignorant, and their equal-two-legged-animals in SA.

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      AliciaC – Please read my reply to FlourishAnyway’s comment. Knowing, and reporting the trend of events in my country is not at all easy. My emotions are killing me. Anger, sadness, the feeling of total powerlessness, and despair, grind me. I honestly don’t know how long I will be able to continue. My OCPD, however, is still strong. It always kicks in when I am unable to comprehend and process a horrible wrong. The more I write about it, the more it becomes ‘just another reality’ with no power over me.

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      always exploring – I honestly hope that the good will outweigh the bad. I am so sick and tired of all the wrongs, which seem to increase at a terrible rate :(

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      The only part of your news that I had heard about before was the horrible story about the rhinos. There are other very sad notes in your article, including the story of the SS Mendi. Thank you for continuing to share the news from South Africa, Martie. I know it must be hard for you, but it's good that people hear about it. The rest of the world needs to be aware of what is happening in South Africa.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      3 years ago from USA

      What disgusts me most of all is the part about the rhinos. I have terrible thoughts for those people.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I know I should have known about the SS Mendi, but I didn't. How sad the black people were used only as workers/slaves. The rhino poaching is barbaric to say the least. I am afraid That I am among the addicted to news as well as Chis Moss. I am also afraid that our freedom of speech is highly in danger. Trump would like to shut them all down, but it will never happen. I am sorry for all the turmoil in SA and the US, but hopefully the good will outweigh the bad. Take care, stay safe, keep writing. Hugs...

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      Hi, MsDora! Here is absolutely no respect for authority, and one of the many reasons is because the authority is ineffective and corrupt. I think going down with a sinking ship, or in a falling aircraft, is one of the most horrible things that can happen to a person, besides being brutally attacked by savages. They say the shock, fear and panic, knowing that you’ll be dead in a matter of minutes or seconds, disappear, as the brain automatically releases calming/tranquilizing hormones. I wonder who came back to confirm this as the truth? Anyway, the theory is based on the behavior of animals – when they fall prey to predators.

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      Blond Logic – Thank you so much for reminding me of the Serenity Prayer. That is indeed one of my most favorite prayers.

      Yes, times are indeed difficult down here – we are all reaping the almost inedible fruit that was sown by white, racist, supremacists for more than 300 years, and on top of this, we are suffering the consequences of bad and ineffective governance by incompetent and corrupt leaders. Fortunately, we are still growing, slowly but surely.

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      marcoujor – The Afrikaans version of Sailor was quite popular down here, and still an evergreen. Recently I was actually surprised to see that it was in fact a translation of Petula Clark’s song! I definitely need those pills, dear Mar. Then I can fight boredom by reading and writing fiction. I’ve done this for years; I can do it again. Thanks for your lovely comment, my dearest Maria

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      Nell Rose – Exactly! We forget that we, too, were at a time in history where others are today. We all have had our share of being in a specific phase, and if not, our turn will come. Worse of all about the Mendi: Because of racism the captain of the Darro made no effort to save the people on the Mendi. Another ship lowered its boats and tried to rescue people in the less than half-an-hour the Mendi was above water. On the other hand, is the story about the Darro captain’s racism true? It was a very foggy morning; at 5:00 am still dark (or not up there?), and surely a large cargo ship like the Darro couldn’t have come to a standstill in less than half-an-hour, even after colliding with the smaller Mendi? Anyway, it’s all over and done. Down here, too, the Mendi disaster has been swept under the carpet. Knowing our history keeps us humble and less critical. I like that quote of Napoleon. Absolutely true!

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      3 years ago from The Caribbean

      So saddened by the Mendi Disaster even though it is old news. Can't help thinking of the grieved family members at that time.

      Seems like there is no respect for authority: "in spite of the Tshwane Metro Police Department's rejection of the organizer's application", there is a march?

      Martie, be strong!

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 

      3 years ago from Brazil

      So much of this hub was an eye opener. I had never heard the term schadenfreude but am well aware of the way media sucks people in for more.

      Likewise the Mendi disaster, Nell Rose is right, the British have a way of pushing down uncomfortable history to the point of it being forgotten.

      It sounds like times are difficult for you and your country and these things can create a downward spiral.

      Although I feel people need to be aware of what is going on around, the serenity prayer holds a lot of power. I'm sure you know it but the first part is:

      God grant me the serenity

      to accept the things I cannot change;

      courage to change the things I can;

      and wisdom to know the difference

      Even if you aren't religious, I think the sentiment applies to most things in life.

    • MartieCoetser profile imageAUTHOR

      Martie Coetser 

      3 years ago from South Africa

      billybuc – Yip, and if it’s not fake news, there are alternative facts :)) What exactly can we, ordinary people do, I am asking myself. The only answer my mind just produced: We have to stay informed in order to avoid traps and precipices, and in order to warn our friends against the traps/precipices we have detected. Most important: We have to keep our heads and hearts open and clean, and immune to all that is negative in order to love/respect/care for ourselves and our fellow-earthlings. This will in any case keep us busy 24/7. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, dear billybuc.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      There are those in the U.S. who have an answer to the new dilemma...if they don't like what they hear, they simply call it fake news. Problem solved! It never happened!

      There are so many problems in this world, I don't even know which ones to concentrate my efforts on. It is overwhelming, my friend, and yet we must do something, yes?

    • profile image

      Nell Rose 

      3 years ago

      Hi Martie, so much pain and anguish, I just wish you all the best and peace over there one of these days. As for the SS Mendi, I am disgusted to say that until recently its never even been mentioned!

      But then again we English are great for totally ignoring our history. Especially if it makes us look bad or weak. Take for example the fact that 1 and a half million white English, Welsh Irish Scots, Norwegians and so on were taken as slaves over the course of 3 hundred years 1600-1900 by the arabs! but that's been swept under the carpet too so to speak!

      And of course the other one being even closer to home and time, the terrorism from 1970 - 2005 being bombed at least twice a year by irish terrorists, thats been swept away too! We are quick enough to condemn muslims for what they do, but 35 years by these other terrorists have been metaphorically forgotten! and no we didn't scream get the irish out, like we do with the muslims! as Napoleon said about history:History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon!

      Great info as always.

    • marcoujor profile image

      Maria Jordan 

      3 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

      What a spectacular to me and most fitting, dear Martie.

      Thanks for teaching me the story of the SS Mendi - I'm glad these brave men are remembered in tributes, memorials and wreaths.

      Schadenfreude is a phenomenon that has fascinated and repulsed me since 1999.

      "The aging Thomas Jefferson expressed regret that he had wasted so much time reading newspapers." My thought exactly...

      ... oh and I'm going to send you a song that comes to mind when I think about such atrocities as with those innocent and sweet rhinos who lost their lives because of poaching by... well, you'll see when I send you the song.

      Sending hugs, love and some new pills called 'DEnial', mar


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