“We die like brothers”: The sinking of the SS Mendi

In the early hours of 21 February 1917, the British steamship SS Mendi was struck by a larger British ship in thick fog and sank in the English Channel. On board were nearly 900 men – mostly black South African men of the South African Native Labour Corps – who were on their way to support the war efforts on the Western Front. More than 600 lives were lost.

One hundred years after the sinking, Graham Scott of Wessex Archaeology, co-author of a new book We Die Like Brothers, shares the story of the tragedy and tells History Extra how the Mendi became a symbol of the fight for social justice and equality

A British & African Steam Navigation Company postcard showing the Mendi.
A British & African Steam Navigation Company postcard showing the Mendi.

What kind of vessel was the SS Mendi and can you tell us a little about its history?

The steamship Mendi was a cargo liner, built to carry both freight and passengers and sailing on a fixed schedule. Like many of the world’s ships in the first decade of the 20th century, it had been built on the Clyde, then the world’s greatest ship-building centre. Despite being built in Scotland, the Mendi operated out of Liverpool for Elder Dempster, which was then one of the great Liverpool shipping companies. The city dominated much of the trade between Britain and West Africa, a tradition that originated in the commercial links forged by Liverpool merchants during the iniquitous slave trade and one which had enabled British businesses to exploit the continent’s vast resources of raw materials and foodstuffs, whilst at the same time exporting manufactured goods back to British colonies.

 

What was happening elsewhere in the First World War at this time?

The year 1916 was one of deep war. It was the year that the Germans tried to bleed France dry at Verdun; when Britain’s hopes for its new volunteer army were bloodily dashed at the Somme. It was the year that Russia’s war effort was at its height and the year that saw the great naval battle of Jutland, as well as a time of continued fighting in the Middle East and Africa.

The Mendi was requisitioned for war service in 1916 to meet the ever-increasing demands of the British war economy and to make up for losses caused by the increasingly problematic German U-boat campaign.

 

Why were so many African men on this ship in the English Channel in February 1917?

When the Mendi sailed from Liverpool under the command of Captain Henry Arthur Yardley in October 1916, it did so with a crew of 89. This was many more than was required for a normal cargo ship, but the Mendi was designed to carry passengers as well and therefore needed more crew to serve their needs. Like many Liverpool ships of the time, the crew were a diverse lot and included a Swede, a Dane and two Russians. As the Mendi was engaged in the West Africa trade, it is not surprising that there were at least 25 Africans, including deckhands, firemen to stoke the boilers, trimmers to shovel coal and men to help in the galley. On this last round trip to Africa, the passengers they were to help cook for were troops.

By the time that the ship left Cape Town in January 1917, bound for Plymouth and then Le Havre in France, the holds of the Mendi had been converted into the cramped accommodation typical of troopships in the First World War and men of the Nigerian Regiment had already been transported to German East Africa, where British and South African forces were engaged in a very difficult and bloody campaign against a German colonial army. But the men that the Mendi was now carrying to France were not, in fact, fighting troops. Instead, they were men of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC): 824 of them.


SANLC members in a camp in France. (© National Library of Scotland)

 

What was the South African Native Labour Corps and how did the need for wartime labour lead to many black South Africans and other black Africans being recruited or drawn into service?

By 1916, the British Army had increased massively in size (between 1914–18 it went from six to 60 divisions). Each fighting division on the Western Front needed nearly 200 tons of supplies every day. The demand for ever more fighting troops meant that the army was finding it increasingly difficult to find enough men to work in support roles: unloading ships in French ports and railheads; building roads, railways and fortifications; supplying the timber needed for railways and trenches; work in hospitals and the myriad of other tasks needed to keep the army fighting. By early 1917 the decision was taken to recruit foreign labour on fixed-term contracts from British Overseas Territories and further afield. By the end of the war the active labour force numbered 700,000, of whom 300,000 were foreign labourers. Of them, 195,000 served on the Western Front.

When war broke out in 1914, the fledgling Union of South Africa entered the war as a British dominion. In the years between 1910 and the outbreak of war, most of the Union’s black population had been denied the right to vote, while legislation had restricted their right to own or lease almost all productive land, ensuring a supply of poor, landless labour for the white-owned mines and factories. Despite this treatment, men from South Africa’s black majority served and died in large numbers as non-combatants in East Africa. Initially their government was reluctant to allow them to serve in Europe, for fear that this would encourage black political consciousness and upset the delicate balance of power that allowed the white minority to dominate and control the black majority. However, as the need for a non-combatant labour force grew increasingly urgent, British pressure on the South Africans also grew. Eventually the South African government relented and in 1916-17, just under 21,000 men of the South African Native Labour Corps went to France.

 

Can you describe the events of the Mendi’s sinking and the actions of the other British ships nearby? How many lives were lost?

After arriving in Plymouth on 18 February 1917 and a brief delay because of warnings about fog and U-boat activity, the Mendi set sail for Le Havre in France on 20 February. The ship was accompanied by its Royal Navy destroyer escort, HMS Brisk. Shortly before midnight, the ships sailed into fog and slowed down, the Mendi sounding its whistle at intervals. 

Just before 5am and a few miles south of the Isle of Wight another ship, the much larger Darro – which had not slowed for the adverse weather conditions – charged out of the fog without warning and crashed into the side of the Mendi, cutting a deep hole in one of its forward holes where many of the SANLC men were sleeping. The Mendi flooded rapidly and sank within 20 minutes. Captain Yardley, wearing a lifebelt, walked calmly off the bridge into the rising water as the bridge went under without him having to jump.

So rapidly did the ship list and then sink, that not all of the lifeboats could be launched. As a result, many hundreds of men were forced to jump into an unusually cold February sea and cling to the ship’s primitive life rafts, hoping for rescue before the cold killed them.

For reasons that we still don’t understand, the captain of the lightly damaged Darro, Henry Stump, did nothing to help and, despite the best efforts of the crew of the Brisk, very few of the men in the water were found in the dark and fog before they succumbed to hypothermia and drowned. Altogether, there were only 267 survivors, less than a third of those who had left Plymouth. Among them was Yardley, pulled out of the water just before he succumbed to the cold. Although the precise figures are still debated, the lives of 646 men, including 30 crew, were lost. Most of the bodies were never recovered.

  

The title of your book, We Die Like Brothers, comes from a speech reportedly given by Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha as the Mendi was sinking. What can you tell us about the man and his words?

Isaac Dyobha’s exhortation to the men on the deck of the sinking ship to face death and “die like brothers” is probably the most well-known part of the Mendi story. We hear that Dyobha rallied the men on the decks of the sinking Mendi, before leading them in a death dance, saying:

“Now then stay calm my countrymen! Calmly face your death! This is what you came to do! This is why you left your homes! Peace, our own brave warriors! Peace, you sons of heroes, today is your final day, prepare for the ultimate ford!”

Dyobha was born a Xhosa in 1852 in what is now the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. The third generation of Christian converts, he attended missionary school before qualifying as a teacher in 1875. He became a political activist in the 1880s, before being ordained as a pastor in 1892. As a life-long believer in education for black South Africans, he helped set up a college that became the University of Fort Hare, whose alumni include Nelson Mandela and many famous 20th-century African leaders. At the age of 64, he volunteered for service in SANLC as an interpreter.

The problem with the ‘death dance’ speech is that reference to it does not appear until the 1930s. It is not therefore clear whether Dyobha gave his famous speech or alternatively whether the story of the rousing speech and the death dance came into being subsequently, perhaps in the context of the use of the Mendi as a rallying point for black improvement and resistance to white minority rule.


SANLC members meeting King George V at Abbeville, France, July 1917. (© National Library of Scotland)

 

What was the reaction in the immediate aftermath and in the following months? Did survivors and families receive compensation?

The subsequent Board of Trade Inquiry in July and August 1917 found that the Darro’s Captain Stump had caused the accident and suspended his master’s certificate for 12 months. His lenient treatment outraged some, though probably reflects the great need for experienced sea captains at that stage of the war.

Stump was not the only ‘villain’ of the story. Many of the men who had joined SANLC were members of an educated black elite who hoped that wartime service might, with British support, bring the black population of South Africa a better deal. Statements made to them heightened these expectations. King George V, addressing SANLC men in France told them that “You are … part of my great armies fighting for the liberty and freedom of my subjects of all races and creeds throughout the Empire.” Speaking shortly after the end of the war, the Governor-General told them that their loyalty “will not be forgotten”. To the men of SANLC, the implications of these statements seemed clear. 

Yet the end of the war brought bitter disappointment. The South African Government had no intention of acknowledging the black role in the conflict and the British proved themselves to be cynically indifferent. As one racist white SANLC officer told them: “When you people get back to SA, don’t start thinking that you are whites, just because this place has spoiled you. You are black, and you will stay black”.

No pension was offered to those who returned, only compensation for injury or death – to a maximum of £50. White officers and NCOs were better provided for. Plans to award black ex-SANLC members the British War Medal were opposed by the South African Government and quietly dropped by the British. Whilst the heroism and sacrifice of white South African troops was honoured and commemorated, a stony official silence descended on the contribution made by SANLC. 


One of the Mendi’s cargo winches is inspected in 2011. One hundred years on, the Mendi remains a symbol of the fight for social justice and equality, says Graham Scott. (© Martin Davies)

 

What was the significance of the sinking of the SS Mendi and the huge loss of life in the post-war years, and particularly in the fight for social and political justice?

For black South Africans, there was great disappointment at the response of their government and the indifference of the British. It became clear to them that the idea expounded by Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George etc. that allowance should be made in the post-war settlement for the self-determination of smaller and oppressed nations did not apply to the British Empire and its Dominions. The veterans themselves remained embittered and were left feeling misled, misused and discarded.

From as early as 1931, annual commemorations of the Mendi disaster were held. These events spread and, as the rights of the black majority were eroded even further over the next four decades, these events became a rallying point for a growing black nationalist movement. 

Since the end of Apartheid in 1994 and the advent of black majority rule, the loss of the Mendi has been brought officially to the fore, particularly by the South African military, which has embraced the memory of SANLC. In 1995, an act of great symbolic importance took place when Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth II, the granddaughter of George V, unveiled a memorial to the Mendi at Avalon Cemetery in Soweto, South Africa. In 2003 South Africa’s civilian order for bravery was renamed the Order of Mendi, in honour of the shipwrecked men.

In the UK, the wreck of the Mendi was discovered in 1974 and became a popular recreational dive site. By 2006, archaeological investigations had begun, supported by Historic England. One of the UK’s most important First World War shipwrecks, the wreck is now protected from interference by war graves legislation. To mark the centenary commemorations, the Royal Navy has recently carried out a geophysical survey of the site to assist further archaeological work. The story of the Mendi is a leading example of the heritage shared by Africa and Europe, and archaeologists from both continents are currently using the wreck to create educational materials for both British and South African schools.

One hundred years on, the Mendi remains a symbol of the fight for social justice and equality.

 

Graham Scott is co-author of We Die Like Brothers (Historic England 2017) which tells the story of the Mendi, from both a historical and archaeological perspective. Scott and co-author John Gribble are experienced marine archaeologists and divers who have been involved in the study of the Mendi for many years. 

A free downloadable Education Resource Pack is available here.

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