Remembering the sinking of the SS Mendi

Date:22 February 2021 Author: Leila Stein

South Africans remember the sinking of the SS Mendi every year on Armed Forces Day. The ship carrying men from the 5th Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps sank on February 21, 1917.

These men, mostly black South Africans, were being sent as labour for the front lines in France. After leaving Cape Town and making it to Plymouth, the ship and 616 men went down after being struck by the SS Daro off the coast of the Isle of Wight.

Credit: IWM

The SS Mendi was built in 1905 by Alexander Stephen and Sons. The  4,230 GRT passenger steamship served as a troopship during the First World War.

On the day of the sinking, the Mendi was struck by the Daro which was found moving at too great a speed in thick fog. The SS Daro was a large mailer ship and it came off unharmed. The SS Mendi on the other hand began sinking and was left without assistance. 607 South African men died, some from the initial impact and others by drowning in the ocean.

Historical accounts have recorded the men were calmed as they were about to die by the Reverend, Isaac Wauchope Dyobha who said: “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen…You are going to die…but that is what you came to do…we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa…”

The wreck was first officially identified in 1974 by a local diver. In 2007 and 2008, a geophysical survey and a desk-based assessment on the wreck were undertaken. It has been designated as a Protect Place by the UK Ministry of Defence, making it illegal to remove items or damage it.

In 2017, the bell from the ship was returned by an anonymous user and then Prime Minister Theresa May returned it to South Africa during an official visit in 2018.

Picture: Historic England

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