How did it come about that hundreds of South African men — predominantly black, but some white — were sailing from Cape Town to Le Havre, France? Like many thousands of others from across the British Empire, they were travelling to support the war effort. Put simply, Britain and her allies were running out of people and supplies. Then, the prevalent view in Britain was an absolute belief in the superiority of the white man.
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So although it was deemed necessary to conscript and recruit from the Caribbean, Africa and India, there was uneasiness at the prospect of putting weapons into the hands of colonial subjects. In the end, battalions of armed Caribbean and African men were deployed to fight, but always under the command of white men.
As well as troops, labourers were also conscripted and recruited to serve in the war effort. The latter were known as the Foreign Labour Corps. Travelling at speed in foggy, dangerous waters 20 kilometres from the Isle of Wight, the Darro, a mail ship twice the size of the Mendi, crashed into the smaller boat. The larger ship initially did not stop to help the SS Mendi and its beleaguered, drowning passengers and crew.
It took less than half an hour for the stricken vessel to sink. The story of the SS Mendi was saved by oral history — but what of official history and remembrance in the UK?
About men survived the disaster. The story of the Reverend Dyobha was especially compelling.
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In his final address on board the Mendi, as it went down, the Reverend led those who could not make it into a life boat in a death dance, telling them:. 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. After the tragedy, white South African parliamentarians paid their respects to those who died, though their deference did not stretch to awarding medals to any of the black servicemen — living or dead — from the South African Native Labour Force.
Such honours were reserved for white officers only. Initially disregarded by the official histories of the First World War, the story of the SS Mendi lives on because it has been passed down orally.
It is only since the ending of apartheid in South Africa that the events of that night in February have been integrated into the mainstream historical narratives of the period, and remembered through ceremonies and memorials in various parts of the country. Here in the UK, the Hollybrook memorial in Southampton is inscribed with the names of those who died, but only recently has the significance of the wreck lying on the sea floor been recognised in Britain. In addition to the Southampton memorial, it would seem most appropriate here in the UK to create a permanent monument on the Isle of Wight, which would point to the location where those men lost their lives.
Wreck of the SS Mendi
Often, they are hidden in plain sight. His story prompted my interest in the mystery of how a ship that was so well known in the past could now be so obsolete with the general public being unaware of its history.
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Coming from a design school in a city with such rich maritime history, I saw the opportunity of bringing the S. Together, we worked to come up with a short story about an elderly seagull who is telling a young seagull about how amazing the S. In the story, the young seagull is captivated by the ship's history and when he asks what the ship is up to now, the old seagull has to share the heartbreaking reality that she has since been forgotten. The actual story of the S.
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We were able to put a heartwarming spin on it with lovable characters while shedding light on the importance of remembering our past as told through our elders. When the S. United States children's book was completed, I received many accolades from my professors, as well as encouragement to continue finessing it for publishing after graduation.
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Having shown parts of the book through Instagram, the S. United States Conservancy reached out to see more of what we had done. They have graciously offered to fact check the story before moving forward to publishing it.