On the night of 21 February 1917, more than 600 men of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) lost their lives in the sinking of the SS Mendi - the largest single loss of life for the non-combatants in the SANLC during the First World War.
The Mendi was carrying the SANLC to France, where they were due to serve as essential labour support to the ongoing fighting, when the SS Darro, a much larger mail ship, struck the troopship, in thick fog 19km south of St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight.
The Darro survived the collision but the Mendi sank quickly. leaving 607 men dead. Some were killed on the point of impact, many others drowned. The Mendi has become the symbol for commemoration of their service.
The extent of the loss of life in the Mendi disaster established its status as a national tragedy in South Africa, which briefly overwhelmed racial divisions. The entire South African House of Assembly rose in silence on 9 March 1917 as a mark of respect. Prime Minister Louis Botha gave an address commending the ‘native’ participation in the war and leading an unopposed motion in ‘to record an expression of its sincere sympathy with the relatives of the deceased officers, non-commissioned officers and natives in their bereavement.’
One of the survivors of the sinking, Jacob Koos Matli, described how the trauma stayed with him. Travelling on another transport ship during the war he recalled that ‘every time I heard the whistles I would jump up and tell the sailors that this ship was also sinking’.
Memorials to the Mendi and the SANLC were erected near Dieppe in France, in Umtata, New Brighton, Langa and Soweto and recently at the University of Cape Town campus. In 1986, the South African Government gave formal recognition of SANLC service with a bronze plaque depicting the sinking of the Mendi among the mural decorations of the museum at Delville Wood, their National War Memorial.
In Britain the sinking of the Mendi is recorded within a memorial for those lost at sea, the Hollybrook Memorial near Southampton. The SANLC accounts for almost one third of the names on the list. The motifs of the sea and the Mendi have been drawn upon in the contemporary commemorative projects of Shawn Sobers in Bristol and marine archaeologists in Britain have also investigated the wreck.
At the heart of the Mendi’s tragedy was that the men’s bodies could not be retrieved and laid to rest. Speaking at the ninetieth anniversary of the sinking of the Mendi in 2007, Lindiwe Mabuza, the South African High Commissioner, told the audience ‘Their souls are not sitting well in the English Channel, and ours are not very healthy as long as we do not do what is right, what is necessary […] If we don’t tell and retell their story, they would definitely have died in vain.’