The Royal and South African Navies will join forces early in the new year to commemorate one of the worst disasters in the Commonwealth country’s history.
The troopship SS Mendi took 616 South Africans – all but nine of them black troops – down with her when she was rammed in fog off the Isle of Wight on February 21, 1917.
To mark the centennial anniversary of the tragedy, the South African Navy is dispatching its frigate SAS Amatola to the UK to support ceremonies ashore and over the wreck site – the first stage in a three-month deployment to Europe.
Royal Navy divers are planning to go down to the Mendi’s wreck, which sits upright on the seabed in murky waters 100 feet down and a good 20 miles southwest of the southernmost tip of the Isle of Wight, placing the South African flag and wreath in memory of all 646 souls lost.
The Mendi was an aging steamer, pressed into military service in 1916 as a troopship. In January 1917 she left Cape Town with 823 men of the Fifth Battalion South African Native Labour Corps aboard – blacks drawn from across the then-dominion to work as labourers on the Western Front, freeing troops for the front line.
After a month-long journey, the ship called in at Plymouth before making for Le Havre in France to offload her passengers.
Instead, before dawn on February 21, she was struck by food transporter SS Darro, which drove a 20 foot deep gash in the Mendi’s bow before extracting herself and continuing on her way.
Destroyer HMS Brisk managed to save about 100 people, but almost the entire battalion of labour troops, plus 30 of the Mendi’s crew – again Africans – died as the ship sank in just 20 minutes.
They faced death with unknown courage. The Rev Isaac Williams Wauchope calmed his countrymen with rallying words:
“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.”
As well as being a national tragedy, the sinking inspired poetry, books, monuments as well as a present-day warship in the South African Navy.
Some of the Mendi’s dead were eventually washed up on the south coast. They were buried at Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth and Hollybrook in Southampton. Centennial services are planned at both as part of February’s commemorations.
This article appears courtesy of Royal Navy News and may be found in its original edition here.