By Baroness Lola Young

31 October 2014 - 17:09

Lighthouse at the Isle of Wight, near which the SS Mendi sank. Photo: Neil Howard under Creative Commons licence.
Lighthouse at the Isle of Wight, near which the SS Mendi sank. Photo ©

Neil Howard, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 and adapted from the original.

During the First World War, a ship sank off the Isle of Wight, killing more than 600 South African passengers. The sinking of the SS Mendi is one of the worst maritime disasters in UK waters of the 20th century, yet few in the UK have heard of it. Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey reminds us that this tragedy needs to be brought out of hidden history and into official history.

There are many different perspectives on a historical event

History is a curious subject. There it is, with all its authority, apparently telling us what we need to know about a particular time, an individual or a group of people, a continent, or an event. And yet history is incomplete and partial. We have internalised its inadequacies, accepted the gaps and absences because — well, what else is there to do? We have to recognise that a history of everything is impossible, an indigestible concoction of the epoch-defining, the trivial and the irrelevant. Too much detail can become detritus and not much use to us at all.

Not everyone who died in the First World War was killed in battle

I want to draw attention to a tragic incident. It involved the loss of human life without a shot being fired or a bayonet drawn, alongside great dignity and heroism. Some may consider it a mere detail or a footnote. It is though, in effect, a story that reflects many of the themes of that conflict, showing how the official, grand narratives of history can gloss over some events.

In South Africa, the SS Mendi evokes a mixture of grief and pride. Yet in Britain, few are familiar with the ship or the fate of those who sailed in it.

What happened to the SS Mendi?

On 21 February 1917, the SS Mendi was struck by another ship not far from the Isle of Wight and badly damaged. It sank. More than 600 South African men died.

How did it come about that hundreds of South African men — predominantly black, but some white — were sailing from Cape Town to Le Havre, France? Like many thousands of others from across the British Empire, they were travelling to support the war effort. Put simply, Britain and her allies were running out of people and supplies.

Then, the prevalent view in Britain was an absolute belief in the superiority of the white man. So although it was deemed necessary to conscript and recruit from the Caribbean, Africa and India, there was uneasiness at the prospect of putting weapons into the hands of colonial subjects. In the end, battalions of armed Caribbean and African men were deployed to fight, but always under the command of white men. As well as troops, labourers were also conscripted and recruited to serve in the war effort. The latter were known as the Foreign Labour Corps.

There were about 70,000 men working in the South African Native Labour Corps. These were the passengers on board the SS Mendi, which left Cape Town towards the end of January 1917. It was carrying 823 men from the Fifth Battalion South African Native Labour Corps when the fatal blow was struck. Travelling at speed in foggy, dangerous waters 20 kilometres from the Isle of Wight, the Darro, a mail ship twice the size of the Mendi, crashed into the smaller boat.

The larger ship initially did not stop to help the SS Mendi and its beleaguered, drowning passengers and crew. It took less than half an hour for the stricken vessel to sink.

The story of the SS Mendi was saved by oral history — but what of official history and remembrance in the UK?

About 200 men survived the disaster. These survivors were able to tell their lost comrades’ stories, making sure that those who died would not become yet another historical absence, an unknown group of mainly black men at the bottom of the sea.

The story of the Reverend Dyobha was especially compelling. In his final address on board the Mendi, as it went down, the Reverend led those who could not make it into a life boat in a death dance, telling them:

‘You are going to die, but that is what you came to do… let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais [spears] back in the kraals [villages], our voices are left with our bodies.’

After the tragedy, white South African parliamentarians paid their respects to those who died, though their deference did not stretch to awarding medals to any of the black servicemen — living or dead — from the South African Native Labour Force. Such honours were reserved for white officers only.

Initially disregarded by the official histories of the First World War, the story of the SS Mendi lives on because it has been passed down orally. It is only since the ending of apartheid in South Africa that the events of that night in February 1917 have been integrated into the mainstream historical narratives of the period, and remembered through ceremonies and memorials in various parts of the country.

In the summer of 2015, there will be a permanent exhibition commissioned by English Heritage, ‘We Die Like Brothers’ at the South African National Memorial, Delville Wood, on the Somme in France, which will include web content and education packs to help teachers tell the story.

Here in the UK, the Hollybrook memorial in Southampton is inscribed with the names of those who died, but only recently has the significance of the wreck lying on the sea floor been recognised in Britain. In addition to the Southampton memorial, it would seem most appropriate here in the UK to create a permanent monument on the Isle of Wight, which would point to the location where those men lost their lives.

We sometimes need to go beyond what official history selects to focus on

When whole swathes of peoples’ experiences are overlooked by studies of the past, they are sometimes referred to as ‘hidden histories’. Often, they are hidden in plain sight. These stories are there if you have the time, energy and knowledge required to seek out the clues, or if someone points them out for you. Thankfully, there is a growing number of researchers looking for the global historical jigsaw puzzle’s missing pieces. We need to familiarise ourselves with these brief but telling moments, that are such an important part of our interconnected histories.

You might also be interested in: