Today, Thursday 21 February, marks the 102nd anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi, when 646 men from the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) and 30 crew members lost their lives.
This tragedy marks one of South Africa’s greatest losses in the First World War and one of the largest ever maritime disasters in English waters.
“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen”
On 21 February 1917, the SS Mendi was struck by SS Darro in thick fog, 10 nautical miles off the Isle of Wight. Badly damaged, she sank rapidly. 646 South African men, mostly black, died. Reverend Dyobha who gave his final address as the ship went down, telling the men: “You are going to die, but that is what you came to do… let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais [spears] back in the kraals [villages], our voices are left with our bodies.”
An open letter to the Unremembered
The men on board the ship 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 war. The war effort fundamentally depended on the Labour Corps, but today they are all but forgotten. They served and suffered. They came from afar and many died. They are The Unremembered.
In 2017 to 2018, we ran a nationwide community project commemorating the Labour Corps from across the world. Hundreds of groups and schools got involved to discover little-known stories from the First World War, understand the global contribution to the war effort, and remember together in creative ways.
Many of our groups took part to remember the South African Native Labour Corps. Wreath-making, creative writing, presentations, remembrance services and many more activities took place. Wembury Local History Society even campaigned for posthumous recognition of a member of the SANLC buried in their town. Click through the gallery below to see some of the creative commemoration that took place.
As part of the project we commissioned a new poem dedicated to all of the Labour Corps, written by South African-born poet Thembe Mvula. Read the poem below.
In 2017, to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi, jazz legend Hugh Masekela played Hambe Kahle – the African Last Post – in dedication to the SANLC. Watch below.