100 years ago today the SS Mendi, a troopship transporting hundreds of Allied soldiers to the First World War in France, sank in thick fog off the Isle of Wight after being struck by a larger cargo vessel, the SS Darro. The disaster claimed the lives of 30 crew and 616 South Africans, all but nine of them black troops (the reason the catastrophe is sometimes referred to as the 'Black Titanic.') The majority of the passengers were from the South African Native Labour Corps; labourers from the sun-baked African hinterland who had been drafted to dig trenches in the mud of the Western Front. Prior to embarking on their 34-day voyage from Cape Town to England most of the South Africans had never even seen the sea, let alone learned to swim.
After tearing a deep gash in the Mendi's hull the cargo vessel remained in the vicinity for four hours, but left it to the Royal Naval support vessel HMS Brisk to try and assist. Meanwhile the troopship was sinking fast; men tumbled into the English Channel, while others were trapped below deck. Those left huddling on the deck, watching their fate rising inexorably, were comforted by their interpreter, a former preacher, Isaac Wauchope Dyobha. He supposedly cried out:
"Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do ... you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers, Swazis, Pondos, Basotho ...so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa."
Other stories persisted that the South Africans performed a 'death dance' as the ship went down.
At the enquiry at the Board of Trade that summer, the Captain of the Darro, Henry Stump, was blamed for sailing so recklessly in poor visibility. His shipping licence was suspended for a year, although there was widespread outrage at such a lenient outcome for someone whose poor seamanship had led to hundreds of deaths. The official report was then classified for the next 50 years. Historians have also pondered if Stump would have been so quick to abandon hundreds of drowning men had they been British soldiers rather than natives.
The disaster will be commemorated today at various locations in Britain and South Africa. Royal Navy divers will place the South African flag and a wreath on the wreck of the Mendi, which sits upright on the seabed, 100 feet below the English Channel.
Around 21,000 black South Africans served in France between 1916 and 1918. They were not allowed to take up arms and mainly used as labourers, stevedores, cooks and other vital non-combatant roles.