This week saw a number of high profile events to commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi with the loss over 600 men of the 5th Battalion the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) and 30 crew members. The tragedy was among South Africa’s greatest losses in the First World War and one of the largest ever maritime disasters in English waters.
In dense fog on 21 February 1917, the SS Mendi was struck by SS Darro 10 nautical miles off the Isle of Wight. Badly damaged, she sank rapidly. More than 600 South African men, mostly black, died. Many were killed in the collision itself, but the majority drowned. The men were set to join the many thousands of other non-combatants from China, India, South Africa, Egypt and other countries within the British Empire to contribute to the expanding Labour Corps effort as Britain and the Allies struggled to cope with the huge losses of the Somme.
The war effort fundamentally depended on the Labour Corps, but today they are all but forgotten. They served and suffered. They were often denied the opportunity to bear arms. They came from afar and many died. They are The Unremembered. Disregarded from mainstream histories of the time, it is with oral histories that this story has been kept alive and there are still direct descendants living in South Africa.
Actor, writer and comedian, and The Unremembered Ambassador Hugh Dennis says: “One hundred years ago more than 600 South African ‘Native Labour Corps’ men lost their lives when their ship sank off the Isle of Wight. They had undertaken an epic journey from Cape Town to serve on the Western Front. I’m honoured to add my voice to The Unremembered campaign which sheds light on the service and sacrifice of the labourers who worked with great courage during the first world war. Theirs is an extraordinary global story which involved people from South Africa, every part of Britain, Canada, China, Seychelles, Fiji, the Caribbean, India – it’s been all but forgotten. I hope everyone will take part in remembering The Unremembered.”
Watch BBC Breakfast’s report on the project:
To mark the centenary, Big Ideas invited the public to join them at the steps of the Portsmouth Guildhall on Friday 17 February for a unique commemorative event. St John’s Cathedral Catholic Primary School, Chichester Community Choir and a singing group from South African Diaspora UK held up high the individual names of the men that died 100 years ago as the SS Mendi sank, and sang the South African song Lizalis idinga lakho, which was sung by the men as the ship sank.
The event sees the launch of a resource pack for local communities and schools in which there will be opportunities to learn about the history of the Labour Corps, find local stories and participate in activities. The resource pack will be accompanied by monthly releases about Labour Corps from different countries around the world. The Unremembered is funded by Department for Communities and Local Government.
Communities Minister Lord Bourne said:
“For too long the histories of the Labour Corps have been overlooked. The forthcoming centenary of the tragic sinking of the SS Mendi, provides the opportunity to right this wrong – to commemorate the courage and strength of the men who died in English waters far from home and also remember the many thousands who sacrificed their lives for this country.”
Virginia Crompton, Chief Executive of Big Ideas Company said:
“It is important to acknowledge the vital contribution of so many who were marginalised by society 100 years ago and should not be marginalised today in our commemoration.”