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SS Mendi

United Kingdom
Class and type: passenger liner
Name: Mendi
Namesake: Mendi in the Territory of Papua
Owner: British and African Steam Navigation Company
Operator: Elder Dempster Lines
Builder: Alexander Stephen and Sons
Yard number: 404
Launched: 18 June 1905
Fate: Requisitioned 1916
United Kingdom
Reclassified: troopship
Fate: Sank after collision on 21 February 1917
General characteristics
Tonnage: 4,222 GRT
Length: 370 ft (110 m)
Beam: 46 ft (14 m)
Propulsion: triple expansion steam engine
Speed: 11.5 knots (21.3 km/h)

SS Mendi was a British 4,222 GRT passenger steamship that was built in 1905 and sunk with great loss of life in 1917.

Alexander Stephen and Sons of Linthouse in Glasgow, Scotland launched her on 18 June 1905 for the British and African Steam Navigation Company, which appointed Elder Dempster Lines to manage her. In 1916 during the First World War the UK Admiralty chartered her as a troopship. On 21 February 1917 a large cargo steamship, Darro, collided with her in the English Channel south of the Isle of Wight. Mendi sank killing 646 people, most of whom were black South African troops.[1] The sinking was a major loss of life for the South African military, and was one of the 20th century's worst maritime disasters in UK waters.


  • Final voyage 1
  • Loss 2
  • Wreck site 3
  • Monuments 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Sources and further reading 7

Final voyage

The destroyer HMS Brisk, which escorted Mendi and rescued survivors

Mendi had sailed from Cape Town carrying 823 men of the 5th Battalion the South African Native Labour Corps to serve in France. She called at Lagos in Nigeria, where a naval gun was mounted on her stern. She next called at Plymouth and then headed up the English Channel toward Le Havre in northern France, escorted by the Acorn-class destroyer HMS Brisk.

Mendi‍ '​s complement was a mixture characteristic of many UK merchant ships at the time. Officers, stewards, cooks, signallers and gunners were British; firemen and other crew were West Africans, most of them from Sierra Leone.[2]

The South African Native Labour Corps men aboard her came from a range of social backgrounds, and from a number of different peoples spread over the South African provinces and neighbouring territories. 287 were from Transvaal, 139 from the Eastern Cape, 87 from Natal, 27 from Northern Cape, 26 from the Orange Free State, 26 from Basutoland, eight from Bechuanaland, five from Western Cape, one from Rhodesia and one from South West Africa. Most had never seen the sea before this voyage, and very few could swim. The officers and NCOs were white South Africans.


At 5 am on 21 February 1917, in thick fog about 10 nautical miles (19 km) south of St. Catherine's Point on the Isle of Wight, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company cargo ship Darro accidentally rammed Mendi‍ '​s starboard quarter, breaching her forward hold. Darro was a 11,484 GRT ship, much larger than Mendi, that was sailing in ballast to Argentina to load meat. Darro survived the collision but Mendi sank, killing 616 South Africans (607 of them black troops) and 30 crew.[3]

Some men were killed outright in the collision; others were trapped below decks. Many others gathered on Mendi‍ '​s deck as she listed and sank. Oral history records that the men met their fate with great dignity. An interpreter, Isaac Williams Wauchope, who had previously served as a Minister in the Congregational Native Church of Fort Beaufort and Blinkwater, is reported to have 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."[4]

The damaged Darro did not stay to assist. But Brisk lowered her boats, whose crews then rescued survivors.[5]

The investigation into the accident led to a formal hearing in summer 1917 held in Caxton Hall, Westminster. It opened on 24 July, sat for five days spread over the next fortnight, and concluded on 8 August.[6] The court found Darro‍ '​s Master, Henry W Stump, guilty of "having travelled at a dangerously high speed in thick fog, and of having failed to ensure that his ship emitted the necessary fog sound signals."[7] It suspended Stump's licence for a year.

Stump's decision not to help Mendi‍ '​s survivors has been a source of controversy. One source states that it was because of the risk of attack by enemy submarines.[1] Certainly Darro was vulnerable, both as a large merchant ship and having sustained damage that put her out of action for up to three months.[8] But some historians have suggested that racial prejudice influenced Stump's decision, and others hold that he merely lost his nerve.[7]

After the War, none of the black servicemen on the Mendi, surviving or dead, was awarded a UK war medal. Nor was any other member of the South African Native Labour Corps, although their white officers were decorated. This was the result of a South African Government decision.[9]

Wreck site

SS Mendi is located in Oceans around British Isles
Position of Mendi‍ '​s wreck in the English Channel

In 1945 Mendi‍ '​s wreck was known to be 11.3 nautical miles (21 km) off Saint Catherine's Light, but it was not positively identified until 1974.[10] The ship rests upright on the sea floor. She has started to break up, exposing her boilers.

In 2006 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission launched an education resource called "Let us die like brothers" to highlight the role played by black South Africans during the First World War. Although they were treated as inferior while alive, in death they are afforded the same level of commemoration as all other Commonwealth war dead.

In December 2006 English Heritage commissioned Wessex Archaeology to make an initial desk-based appraisal of the wreck. The project will identify a range of areas for potential future research and serve as the basis for a possible non-intrusive survey of the wreck itself in the near future.[11]


This event is commemorated by a number of monuments in South Africa, Britain, France and the Netherlands, as well as in the names of two South African Navy ships:

Monuments, ceremonies and other commemorations, such as artworks, in which the loss of men of the Mendi has been commemorated include:

  • Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, bearing the names of the men of the Mendi who had no known graves.[12][13]
  • 13 men are buried in cemeteries in England, one in France and five are commemorated by monuments in the Netherlands.[13]
  • Mendi Memorial in Avalon Cemetery in Soweto, unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II on 23 March 1995.[14]
  • Mendi memorial at the Gamothaga Resort in Atteridgeville, South Africa.[13]
  • Mendi Memorial on an embankment at the Mowbray campus of the University of Cape Town, at the site where men of the South African Native Labour Contingent were billeted before embarking on the Mendi.[13] This is a sculpture by Cape Town artist Madi Phala that represents a ship's bow cast in heavy metal, sinking into the ground. In front of it are helmets, hats and discs, symbolising Mendi‍ '​s troops, officers and crew. A plaque simply reads "SS Mendi, S. African troopship, sank next to the Isle of Wight 1917 02 21".[15] The artist Madi Phala was murdered outside his house in March 2007.[16]
  • The bridge telegraph from the Mendi is at the Maritime Museum, Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight.[13]
  • In 2006 the The Commonwealth War Graves Commission and History Channel released a 20-minute film, Let Us Die Like Brothers, about the Mendi sinking and the involvement of black South Africans in the European theatre of the First World War.[13]
  • On 21 July 2007 a ceremony was held at the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, followed by SAS Mendi laying a wreath at sea where the ship sank.[13]
  • An animated short film Off the record by Wendy Morris, 2008 Artist in Residence, In Flanders Fields Museum.[19]
  • BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio documentary, The Lament of the SS Mendi, on 19 November 2008. Scots poet Jackie Kay studied the history of the sinking and recited her own memorial poem.[20]
  • Several websites including those of the British Council,[21] the Commonwealth War Graves Commission,[22] Wessex Archaeology[11] and Delville Wood.[13]
  • A commemorative white life-belt labelled "SS Mendi 21-02-1917", on public display at Simonstown's quayside in South Africa, next to the popular "Just Nuisance" dog statue.
  • A 23 minute film African Kinship Systems: Emotional Science – Case Study #2: The Fate of the SS Mendi by filmmaker and visual anthropologist Dr Shawn Sobers was shown at the Royal West Academy (RWA) from 10 to 31 August 2014. Sobers' exhibition included the film, an alcohol libation offering, and a screen-based text piece presenting names of all the 646 men who died on the Mendi. The work was exhibited as part of RWA's "Re-Membering" series presenting commissioned artists responses to the First World War.[23]
  • The latest commemoration is the SS Mendi Memorial Wall in the grounds of the Lower Campus of the University of Cape Town. The wall was completed in 2014 with the names of all the men who were killed. The military had its first practice parade in Cecil Road, Rondebosch on 18 October 2014 where the wall is. The dedication parade was held on Sunday 19 October 2014.

See also


  1. ^ a b Cameron, Stuart; Biddulph, Bruce; Robinson, George; Strathdee, Paul; Asprey, David. "Mendi".  
  2. ^ Board of Trade 1917, p. 7.
  3. ^ "Memorial wreath laying for the SS Mendi and her crew". South African Navy. Retrieved 10 April 2006. 
  4. ^ Boon, Mike (2008). The African Way: The Power of Interactive Leadership. Zebra.  
  5. ^ SA Legion – Atteridgeville Branch. "The SS Mendi – A Historical Background". Navy News. South African Navy. Retrieved 20 November 2008. 
  6. ^ Board of Trade 1917, p. 1.
  7. ^ a b Swinney, G (9 December 2007). "The Sinking of the SS Mendi, 21 February 1917" 10 (1). The South African Military History Society. Retrieved 17 February 2008. 
  8. ^ Nicol 2007, p. 229.
  9. ^ "The Aftermath".  
  10. ^ "SS Mendi: The Legacies". Wessex Archaeology. Retrieved 17 September 2008. 
  11. ^ a b "The Wreck of the SS Mendi". Wessex Archaeology. 1 May 2008. 
  12. ^ "Monuments of the First and Second World Wars". Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. 
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "Sinking of the Mendi". Delville Wood. 
  14. ^
  15. ^ "SS Mendi sculpture part of UCT". Monday Paper Archives.  
  16. ^ "Heritage Artwork is doubly poignant".  
  17. ^ "Retired Army major wins campaign to get sunken South African warship classed as official grave".  
  18. ^ "Disasters at sea: the loss of the troopship Mendi". Archived from the original on 18 January 2006. 
  19. ^ Morris, Wendy. 2008. Off the record. In Flanders Fields Museum, Ieper, Belgium
  20. ^  
  21. ^  
  22. ^ "South African War Dead Honoured through New Technology". News.  
  23. ^ "A look at Re-Membering I". Behind the scenes. RWA. 14 August 2014. 

Sources and further reading

  • "Mendi" and "Darro" (PDF). London:  
  • Clothier, Norman (1987). Black Valour – The South African Native Labour Contingent, 1916–1918 and the Sinking of the Mendi. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.  
  • Nicol, Stuart (2001). MacQueen's Legacy; Ships of the Royal Mail Line Two. Brimscombe Port and Charleston, SC:  
  • Tracey, Hugh (1948). 100 Zulu Lyrics. African Music Society. Retrieved 17 February 2008. 
  • "They died like warriors: tale of the SS Mendi".  

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