The tale of a little known tragedy and the lesson
that may perhaps be learned from it; or perhaps not …
David Wesley Tonkin.
In traditional naval lore it is said that the ship’s bell symbolizes the “soul” of a ship. I envision, by a similar logical progression, that it is safe to say that truth is the “heart” of a historical narrative. I am going to use the symbolism of the former to illustrate and debate the latter. If details, facts or circumstances are purposefully omitted, denied, misrepresented or glossed over then, undisputedly, truth; and our society become the first victims.
During the First World War, on the 21st of February, 1917, a ship sank near St. Catherine’s Point off the Isle of Wight, killing 616 South African passengers. The sinking of the Royal Mail Ship (R M S) Mendi is one of the worst maritime disasters in United Kingdom waters of the 20th century. Yet very few people in South Africa, the United Kingdom or anywhere else in the world have ever heard of it.
Why were these 616 (and many more of their comrades) South African men … black South Africa men (of the 5th Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps) … sailing from Cape Town at the southern tip of Africa to the Port of Le Havre in France?
Like hundreds of thousands of His Majesty’s subjects from every country in the British Empire, they were travelling to become conscripted cannon-fodder to the maelstrom in France. They were desperately needed to replace the hordes of young men that successive irresponsible and fatuous British Generals had sent to certain death by clinging to reckless, heartless and antediluvian strategies and battlefield tactics.
The tale of the R M S Mendi was only safeguarded by oral history; approximately 200 men survived the collision with another steamship, the S. S. Darro (which never stopped to help with the rescue). The survivors were able to recount their stories, ensuring that those who died would not become yet another historical absence, an unknown group of mainly black men at the bottom of the English Channel.
The survivors all described the actions and recalled the powerful words of a black Army Chaplain, the Reverend Isaac Dyobha who called the men together as the R M S Mendi started to sink; what he said is the stuff of legends.
He said “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 cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais [spears] at our kraals [villages], our voices are left with our bodies.”
The men took off their boots, stamped their feet and raised imaginary spears and shields to the skies and performed an African dance of death.
The then Prime Minister Louis Botha brought the tragedy to the attention of the South African Parliament; however, the impact to the country was ephemeral as Botha played a significant role in creating majority political disenfranchisement and vindictive minority rule in 20th-century South Africa.
Persistent discrimination and blatant suppression of the truth ensured that the appalling R M S Mendi tragedy was never afforded rightful recognition by respective Governments in South Africa and the United Kingdom. South African officials during these years demonstrated their unwillingness to highlight black people’s wartime contributions by refusing medals and reasonable post-war recompense to ‘non-combatant men’ or their families, deemed less valuable due to racial prejudice.
Fortunately this callous censorship of Black South African’s contribution to World War I (and all other subsequent military campaigns) has ceased. After Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela became the President of South Africa on the 10th of May, 1994, Mendi memorials now exist in Port Elizabeth (New Brighton), Cape Town (University of Cape Town at Mowbray) and Johannesburg (Atteridgeville in Soweto).
Memorial services are now held countrywide and form part of the South African National Defense Force’s Armed Forces Day (Mendi Day). Awards and decorations for Bravery in the name of the R M S Mendi have finally been issued.
The South African Navy has named two ships in honor of the men who perished … the (South African Ship) SAS Mendi (a Valour class Frigate) and the SAS Isaac Dyobha (a Warrior class Strike-craft). A dedicated exhibit has now also been opened at the South African War Memorial and Museum at Delville Wood, east of the village of Longueval, in the Department of the Somme in France.
A full military wreath laying ceremony was held on the 23rd of August 2004, when the SAS Mendi and the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Nottingham, met at St. Catherine’s Point off the Isle of Wight where the R M S Mendi sank. Another formal wreath ceremony was held on the 24th of February 2017 in the same location; the two ships this time were the SAS Mendi’s sister-ship the SAS Amatola and the Royal Navy’s destroyer HMS Dragon.
On Tuesday, August 28th, 2018 the ships bell of the R M S Mendi was presented to President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa at a ceremony in Cape Town by the British Prime Minister Theresa Mary May.
So many people have, since 1994, influenced and fostered the commemoration and veneration so richly deserved and so long overdue to the 616 men of the South African Native Labour Corps’ 5th Battalion who perished on that foggy night of the 21st of February, 1917 off the Isle of Wight; people who believe that the truth needed to be told.
In an imaginary Hollywood epic about this series of events the script would call for the heroes to walk off into a theatrical sunset; resolute in their satisfaction and belief that they had done something of substance. They had righted a mighty wrong. One of the heroes would, just before the end-credits rolled, turn and look into the camera and say in an opulently resonant voice … “The world has learned a lesson from this; and we will make it a better place”
Sadly, we have not learned very much from epic disasters like that of the R M S Mendi.
I end this with two quotations from the book “Cry, the Beloved Country” by an illustrious South African, Alan Stewart Paton (11 January 1903 – 12 April 1988) … author and anti-apartheid activist.
How heartrendingly pertinent they are today.
“The tragedy is not that things are broken. The tragedy is that things are not mended again.”
“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that’s the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing. Nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him if he gives too much.”
- The image of the R M S Mendi: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 80 years or less.
- The photograph of Theresa May returning the R M S Mendi bell is courtesy of the NewAfrican magazine and on-line magazine.
- The close-up photograph of the R M S Mendi bell is courtesy of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) News Services.
- Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify the photograph of the SAS Mendi under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.
- The two images of the wreath ceremony are courtesy of the South African Navy official website.
- The image of King George V is from “The Union of South Africa and the Great War 1914-1915”. Official history, Pretoria 1924: Courtesy of the Government Printing and Stationary Office.