This article is part of a retrospective of the Sinking of the SS Mendi in the English Channel starting today and culminating on the tragedy's centenary on Tuesday, February 21.
Just before 5am on Wednesday February 21, 1917, the fully laden cargo ship Darro rammed into the SS Mendi in the English Channel, just south of the Isle of Wight, at full speed.
It was pitch dark. The fog was dense.
Within 25 minutes, the much smaller Mendi had sunk to the sea bed 40 metres below and with her 646 souls perished, some dragged down inside the ship, others drowning because they couldn’t swim, or dying from exhaustion or hypothermia in the icy sea.
The vast majority – 607 – were black soldiers of the South African Native Labour Corps on their way to serve in France during the height of World War I.
They had only recently completed the 34 day voyage from Cape Town to Plymouth, England, and were now on their way to France to the war.
They were joined by nine of their white officers and NCOs and 31 of the Mendi’s crew.
Only 267 men survived the sinking; 195 black troops, two of the four white officers and 10 of the 17 white NCOs.
The sinking though became a byword for courage. About 140 men had died instantly, drowned when the Darro rent a 6m gash on the starboard side, right into the front two holds where they were sleeping.
Up on deck, as the officers struggled to launch the lifeboats and life rafts, the company chaplain Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyo bha raised his arms and called out:
“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die… but that is exactly what you came to do.
“Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers; 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 assegaais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.”
The men then took off their boots and danced the death drill on the deck of the sinking ship, as it canted over to starboard and the waters rushed toward them.
Many died after jumping into the water and then being sucked under as the Mendi went below the surface.
There were many tales of sacrifice and heroism of white officers and NCOs chivvying their men into the water, helping them to swim to the life rafts.
There were many stories of black soldiers saving their white NCOs.
There was one story too of a white sergeant, nicknamed Mafuta – the fat one – kicking black soldiers in the face as they tried to get onto his life raft.
This was not the only controversy. The Darro, which had only been slightly damaged lay nearby, but never launched its own boats to pick up survivors.
It had room for 1177 passengers and crew but was sailing empty except for its crew.Instead, two lifeboats with 110 survivors and a life raft managed to get to the Darro where they were allowed to board.
The master of the Darro was told that his ship had caused the Mendi to sink and that there were hundreds of troops in the bitterly cold sea, but he never gave orders to lower lifeboats. Instead it was left to a Royal Navy destroyer HMS Brisk to search for survivors
Three men, one of whom was Alpheus Moliwa Zagubi, were picked up after three days drifting on a life raft.
The news only reached South Africa two weeks later. Oral tradition claims people in kraals in rural areas knew of the tragedy before Prime Minister General Louis Botha rose in Parliament to inform the nation.
The house, in a rare show of unity, stood as one in homage to the men who had perished.
A motion was unanimously carried conveying parliament’s sadness, but in the end it would mean very little to the survivors and the thousands of other men who volunteered to serve in the Native Labour Corps, being denied the World Warf I campaign medals that all other soldiers – and even their own white officers and NCOs – would receive afterwards.
All in all 21 000 black South Africans served in France between 1916 and 1918, when the war ended.
They were not allowed to bear arms, but instead acted as labourers, stevedores and cooks among a host of other critical non-combatant roles.
A formal enquiry by the Board of Trade was held in July and August in London over five days. Its findings were damning: the Darro had been in the area for four hours after the collision, and was obviously unharmed.
The Master of the Darro Henry Stump was disgraced. His ship had been sailing far too fast in conditions of very little visibility because of the dense fog.
Even more damning was his total unwillingness to go to the aid of hundreds of men floating in the ciy water, which instead the sailors of HMS Brisk had done.
Stump lost his licence for a year. The report was then classified as secret – and suppressed from public view for the next 50 years.
Many felt that Stump was a coward and should be banned from command for life. After his year’s punishment was up though he went back to command ships for the rest of his career.
The sinking of the Mendi had been a tragedy second only in scale to the tragedy at Delville Wood the year before when 776 men of the 1st South African Brigade died holding the wood over six days.
It remains South Africa’s worst maritime disaster, surpassing the 1845 sinking of HMS Birkenhead off the southern Cape coast when 450 people, mostly soldiers, perished.