Thursday, February 21, 2019

A very special, if confused, day

Stanley - Thursday

Today is Armed Forces Day in South Africa - chosen because it is the date of one of the country's worst military disasters - the sinking of the SS Mendi in 1917. 

What is confusing is how the tragedy has been regarded over the years. It's enough to give one a headache. And heartache. And it almost totally due to the oral history tradition of the blacks in South Africa that we remember it at all.

The story

Fighting a war is a very complex enterprise requiring not only soldiers, but also non-combatant personnel to support them. In 1916, the British government asked South Africa to send 10,000 men from the South African Native Labour Contingent to Europe to help the war effort. South Africa complied, and large numbers of black South Africans (about 21,000) headed for Europe, expressly barred from doing any fighting because of fears that they may return and confront the white government. Most who went were volunteers who hoped that they would be rewarded for their service on their return.

The South African Native Labour Contingent's last parade before heading to Europe

Just before embarking
On the evening of February 20, 1917, the SS Mendi set sail from Plymouth headed for La Havre, France, with 805 black privates, 5 white officers, 17 non-commissioned officers, and 33 crew. On the morning of the next day, another ship, the SS Darro, sailing at high speed in unfavourable conditions, rammed into the SS Mendi, causing it to sink in less than half an hour.

The SS Mendi
Due to the rapid listing of the SS Mendi, some lifeboats were unusable, others were not launched because the men were unable to untie the knots on the ropes holding them. Apparently, the men had not been told that the ropes were designed to be cut, not untied. And those that were launched soon filled up, a few overturning due to overloading. 

The SS Darro did nothing to help rescue the men of the SS Mendi. However, lifeboats from the SS Mendi's escort, the destroyer HMS Brisk, did all it could to rescue survivors. In the end, 649 men perished. In an enquiry into the tragedy, the captain of the SS Darro, a Captain Stump, was found negligent and had his license suspended for a year.

The wreck 
In a rare, possibly unique, gesture, all members of the white South African House of Assembly stood in respect for the dead.

The legend

The courage shown by those on the SS Mendi has become a legend in South Africa. Certainly, there are verified accounts of amazing discipline and bravery, with men helping each other without respect to colour. As you would expect, there are also stories that have been elaborated and exaggerated, the best known of which is of a black paster, Isaac Dyobha, who called out to the men too afraid to jump overboard:
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 war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais at our kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.
Assegai - spear
Kraal - village

It is also said that the men danced on the deck in their bare feet, stamping in unison. However, this is highly unlikely, given the listing of the ship.

The aftermath

Many of the dead are buried in the countries where their bodies were washed ashore. There are memorials in a number of places in Europe and South Africa, but official recognition was only given in 2017, a hundred years after the tragedy, with the installation of a plaque at the South African National Memorial at Delville Wood.

The plaque at Delville Wood
The survivors of the disaster were treated very badly on their return to South Africa. Their contribution was barely acknowledged and promises that had been made before heading to Europe were not kept. No members of the South African Native Labour Contingent received a ribbon or medal for their service, nor did they receive promised pensions or grants of land or cattle or a reprieve from the hated hut tax. 

However, some did have something to take home with them - the thanks of the king. As one veteran later wrote 
We met King George and Queen Mary. The King addressed us personally and thanked us for the services we rendered. He told us that we were going home within a few days, and when we reached home we must tell our Chiefs and fathers how he had thanked us.

King George thanking members of the South African Native Labour Contingent
Another veteran, A K Xabanisa, later wrote:
I am just like a stone which after killing a bird, nobody bothers about, nobody cares to see where it falls.
The UK at last gives something back - the bell from the SS Mendi
During the years of white rule in South Africa, particularly under the apartheid government, the story of the SS Mendi was downplayed. I was well into my adult years when I first heard about it.

On the other hand, for the most part, the incident has been a rallying cry for blacks - something to be proud of. But even among blacks, it has waxed and waned in importance. I read just last week, that a government agency refused to provide some financial support for a memorial service scheduled to take place today because the men on the SS Mendi were supporting a colonial cause.

It makes my head spin.

South Africa's highest award for courage is now called the Order of the Mendi Decoration for Courage. And the South African navy honours those who died by having a Warrior class fast-attack craft named the SAS Isaac Dyobha, and a Valour class frigate named the SAS Mendi.

As I am writing this, I can hear South African Airforce jets flying low over Table Bay and heavy guns firing from Bloubergstrand across from Robben Island in remembrance of all of the country's war dead, no matter their colour.

May they rest in peace.


  1. An event that needs to be better recognised and remembered. Fred Khumalo, a well-known writer in South Africa, has written a powerful novel around the aftermath of the event - Dancing the Death Drill. Worth reading.

  2. Stan, as my African series is entering WWI territory with the next book, I only wish I could find a way to work this incident into my stories. My research tells me about the thousands of back East Africans who perished while supporting the British against the Germans on the African front. The more I study it, the more convinced I am of the senselessness of that miserable part of human history.

    1. If you want more evidence and more tears, take a look at what I watched recently on Al Jezzera:

  3. Had tears in my eyes reading this. And this, 'I am just like a stone which after killing a bird, nobody bothers about, nobody cares to see where it falls'. Wow.

    1. I had the same reaction, Leye. Much the same things must have happened in Nigeria. If you want more tears, read my response to Annamaria.

  4. Whether fact or legend, the point made is the same. And that's what brings on the tears and introspection.

  5. Interesting article! Thank you for sharing them! I hope you will continue to have similar posts to share with everyone.
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  6. War is such a waste of humanity. And for those caught up in it not to have their sacrifices recognized is just despicable.