I was reading the latest issue of British Archaeology magazine when a small story caught my eye - it was about the wreck of the SS Mendi, which sank in 1917 with great loss of life off the Isle of Wight, and the rediscovery of the ship's bell, which had somehow found its way to Swanage Pier in Dorset.
So I went looking for a few more details, and found a fascinating story of the First World War.
The SS Mendi was built in 1905, as a passenger steamship, for the British and African Steam Navigation Company. In 1916 the ship was chartered by the Admiralty as a troop ship, and in 1917 she was being used to bring 823 African troops of the 5th battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps from Cape Town to France. They were on their way across the Channel from Plymouth to Le Havre, escorted by HMS Brisk, in thick fog, when the Mendi was hit by the Darro, a cargo ship - sinking the Mendi with the loss of 607 black troops and 30 crew, many of whom were also black. Many of the troops had never been to sea before their voyage from Cape Town, and few could swim. Some were trapped below decks.
The Darro did not stay to assist, but the Brisk lowered life boats to rescue survivors.
The master of the Darro was later found guilty of having travelled too fast during fog, without sounding the proper fog warnings, and his license was suspended for a year. The Darro sustained damage that put the ship out of action for three months.
The wreck of the Mendi was rediscovered in 1974, and in 2009 it was designated a protected war grave.
There was a commemoration of the sinking in February this year, on the 100th anniversary, and there are monuments in South Africa, as well as a short film telling the story, and a Radio 4 documentary featuring a memorial poem by Jackie Kay.
The hero of the hour, who was one of the men who drowned, was Isaac Williams Wauchope, a Xhosa Congregational minister and noted South African journalist who stayed with the men on the sinking ship. He was 64 when he died. Here's part of his obituary:
(From Wauchope’s obituary by S.E. Krune Mqhayi)
…On 20 February 1917 the ship Mendi left England to cross the straits known as the English Channel, between England and France. Everyone thought they were beyond enemy threat, but danger lurked close at hand. That night was pitch black in the sea fog and the lights were ineffective. At dawn on the 21st a thunderous crash was heard as the Mendi was rammed by another ship, truly gigantic. They could not see each other. The Mendi was pierced in the side, and a huge fissure was opened through which the water poured in, eliminating all hope of saving her. The other ship struggled to rescue those who were drowning, but the confusion of darkness and war hampered the effort.
Reader, observe the frantic thrashing of people trying to save themselves! Danger of this sort was something new: they had no experience of it! Some woke befuddled by sleep and had no idea where to head for safety! It’s said there were too few lifeboats for the crowds on board. Then in an instant the ship went down like a stone! Reader, please observe your boys sucked down into a watery expanse without beginning or end! See them clutch at each other, ignorant of their actions! See them filling that boat there, more weight than it can bear, so that now all the dozens in it are engulfed by the sea! Never forget, reader, the cold of that country, and in water too! Think of the groups in that cold, their manly arms failing, their bodies sinking from sight! Never forget, reader, that the young men of your country worked wonders in that crisis, wonders in rescuing large numbers of white men who were their superiors, and lost their own lives in saving others!
Was there ever such a sacrifice? Don’t shut your ears, reader, to the cry of your country’s children. Does a sacrificial beast not cry because of the pain? Without it that sacrifice would not be acceptable! The cry is a sign that the sacrifice has been accepted. Didn’t our Lord utter a confused cry on Golgotha? Today that rock juts over the whole world.
But wait! Please do the right thing, my friend, my reader. Where exactly is the son of Citashe at this juncture?
Those who were there say the hero from Ngqika’s land, descended from heroes, was standing to one side now as the ship was sinking! As a chaplain he had the opportunity to board a boat and save himself, but he didn’t! He was appealing to the leaderless soldiers urging them to stay calm, to die like heroes on their way to war. We hear that he said:
Now then stay calm my countrymen!
Calmly face your death!
This is what you came to do!
This is why you left your homes!
Peace, our own brave warriors!
Peace, you sons of heroes,
Today is your final day,
Prepare for the ultimate ford!