Home Arts & Culture Newsworthy Africans Drowned in the British Isle of Wight in 1917

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Africans Drowned in the British Isle of Wight in 1917

The SS Mendi, a former mail ship requisitioned as a troop carrier, had sailed from Capetown with more than 800 African volunteers, some as young as 16, most seeing the sea for the first time. It also carried five white officers, 17 non-commissioned officers, and a crew of 33. The men had volunteered to join the South African Native Labour Corps. They were not trusted to bear arms - another bitter point - but were instead destined to work as labourers.

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The only men rescued were saved by other ships. Within minutes the Mendi was sinking. The chaplain, Reverend Isaac Dyobha, rallied the terrified men, shouting: "Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies." He was among those who drowned. Among the survivors the white officers received medals, the black volunteers nothing.

This afternoon one small gesture will be made towards righting a 90-year-old wrong: to the sound of a South African naval band, a wreath will be cast into the waters off the Isle of Wight which swallowed more than 600 young black African lives in the foggy small hours of February 21 1917.

The SS Mendi, crowded with African volunteers bound for the western front, sank because it was rammed amidships by a much larger British mail ship, which made no attempt to rescue the drowning men. According to oral tradition, the Mendi sank with hundreds of black teenagers, singing and dancing their tribal death dance, barefoot on the deck.

There is a growing campaign for a permanent reminder of the tragedy: a team of British archaeologists is seeking finance to map the remains on the sea bed, and then send down a remote-controlled submarine to film the wreck of the Mendi. "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," said Lindiwe Mabuza, South African high commissioner, who organised today's ceremony. "If we don't tell and retell their story, they would definitely have died in vain."

The tragedy is almost unknown in Britain. "They were treated like dirt in the war to end all wars," Ms Mabuza said. "Their families were never properly informed, no compensation was paid for their deaths. I think that we need to be thinking more seriously what needs to be done to right that wrong."

John Gribble, a South African archaeologist now working with Wessex Archaeology, who has carried out extensive research for an English Heritage report on the wreck, has just returned from fundraising discussions in South Africa. He said: "This is an important story, and it deserves to be remembered."

The wreck, which lies in deep murky water but has been visited by souvenir hunting divers, has no official protection - like thousands of other sunken ships littering Britain's coasts. The Mendi is neither designated as a historic wreck nor listed as a war dead site.

The SS Mendi, a former mail ship requisitioned as a troop carrier, had sailed from Capetown with more than 800 African volunteers, some as young as 16, most seeing the sea for the first time. It also carried five white officers, 17 non-commissioned officers, and a crew of 33. The men had volunteered to join the South African Native Labour Corps. They were not trusted to bear arms - another bitter point - but were instead destined to work as labourers.

The Mendi was travelling very slowly, in dense fog. Just before 5am, a few miles south of St Catherine's Point on the Isle of Wight, it was rammed by the SS Darro, travelling at full speed, which holed it below the waterline, punching into the deck where hundreds of men lay sleeping.

The Darro managed to pull clear, but then made no attempt at rescue. In the investigation which followed Captain HW Stump was sharply reprimanded - after studying all the records, Mr Gribble concluded he may have been suffering from shock - and suspended for a year, a punishment the South Africans thought pathetically inadequate.

The only men rescued were saved by other ships. Within minutes the Mendi was sinking. The chaplain, Reverend Isaac Dyobha, rallied the terrified men, shouting: "Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies." He was among those who drowned. Among the survivors the white officers received medals, the black volunteers nothing.

Ms Mabuza believes that once the ship, which was found in the 1940s but only identified 30 years ago, has been surveyed, any human remains must be raised and returned to Africa for burial.

However Mr Gribble, who is also a diver, said: "Most of the bodies, hundreds, will have been carried out in the Atlantic, and I am afraid we will never know where they lie."

Originally appeared in Guardian Unlimited.

Home Arts & Culture Newsworthy Africans Drowned in the British Isle of Wight in 1917