Reverend Isaac Williams Dyobha Wauchope is one of the more than 600 troops who perished in the ice-cold waters of the English Channel on the south coast of the Isle of Wight on February 21, 1917.
The SS Mendi sank on that day following a collision, leading to the deaths of hundreds of people, whose remains were never found for burial. Only about 15 bodies washed ashore and were buried.
“That is a painful thing, you know. In all cultures, when somebody dies, you always want to know or you always hope there will be a burial. Even if a person goes missing, you hope they will come back, possibly alive. If not, even if they are dead, you are given the remains so that you can bury them,” said Natalia Sifuba, Wauchope’s fifth-generation granddaughter.
Sifuba said that for many years, the family had to perform rituals in other relatives’ graves to ask their ancestors to welcome his spirit.
“When the SS Mendi Memorial Plaque was unveiled at Avalon cemetery in Soweto, my mother decided that that is where we should perform rituals whenever we wanted to. The years leading up to 1974 when Dr Martin Woodward found the wreckage were not easy. Once news that the wreckage had been found started spreading, we were so happy and got in touch with Dr Woodward,” Sifuba said.
She said the apartheid government had done everything in its power to ensure that the story of the SS Mendi was never told "because they did not want to honour them”.
“We never allowed the story to die. It is a story that was told from one generation to the other, and I am keeping it alive,” said Sifuba.
Woodward, a professional diver who discovered the SS Mendi wreckage more than 50 years after it sank, was in South Africa recently and met the Wauchope family at their home in Dlamini, Soweto.
Woodward said he had taken the story of the unsung heroes of the SS Mendi tragedy to heart.
Now 70, he said he had dived to 700 shipwrecks, and that in his 50-year diving career the SS Mendi was the most special to him.
“The SS Mendi is very close to my heart. It is the most significant find that I ever made because of the sad story behind it,” Woodward said.
The Wauchope family have had a very close relationship with Woodward since Sifuba attended the SS Mendi centenary event in Britain in February last year, where she met the diver.
“No one knew about it being there at the time, so it was a mystery. In England, nobody knew about the story until I found the wreck and unravelled the story. I identified the ship by a small blue-and-white porcelain saucer. I did the research and found the story behind it.
“I was amazed at how such a huge loss of life occurred just off the island where I lived and nobody knew about it, not even me,” Woodward said.
He said he had a museum, the Shipwreck Centre and Maritime Museum, on the Isle of Wight, which was opened in 1978.
“There is a big section on the Mendi with some of the items from the ship. When I unravelled the story of the Mendi and found that 646 people from the townships of South Africa were lost just of our island, I was dumbstruck. It is a tragic story, and the more I looked into it, the more I formed a personal connection with the people of South Africa. The story grew and I have kept it alive,” Woodward said.@smashaba