Remembering the SS Mendi
February 17, 2017 10:18 AM   Subscribe

"In February 1917 the SS Mendi, a First World War troopship, was carrying 802 men of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC), bound for the Western Front. Many had never seen the sea before. The men had signed up because they believed that, despite being oppressed by the white South African government, if they demonstrated loyalty to the British Empire, it would gain them a voice in their deeply divided land." so writes Historic England writing about one of the more tragic events in British history:
"On 21 February 1917, the British ship, the SS Mendi was sunk off the Isle of Wight. It was hit not by a German torpedo, but by another British ship, the Darro, in thick fog....The Darro made no attempt to rescue the men in the water, and the Mendi’s Royal Navy escort ship was able to find only a very few."

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi.

Historic England is publishing We Die like Brothers, a book about the event.

Wessex Archaeology has a website with resources on the wreckage of the SS Mendi.

"The sinking of the SS Mendi is one of the worst maritime disasters in UK waters of the 20th century, yet few in the UK have heard of it."- British Council writes on the hidden history of the Mendi.
posted by vacapinta (9 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks. I, like most, had never heard of this tragedy.
posted by Emma May Smith at 10:26 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]

I never heard of this terrible incident. Those poor men!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:28 AM on February 17

This was a horrible way to die, drowning in freezing water in the fog and darkness. On the other hand, they were headed to the Western Front, a killing machine not matched until the Eastern Front in the next war. And the Spanish influenza. It made me think of the men who survived Shackleton's boat journey from Elephant island in the Antarctic only to have to walk over the icy mountains on South Georgia Island and then go home to die on the front. At least the South Africans were never shelled or gassed or had their feet amputated from trenchfoot.
posted by Bee'sWing at 11:04 AM on February 17 [7 favorites]

Let's not forget that these people lived their lives under white supremacy, colonization, and occupation. And they had devoted their lives to changing that situation, when a crew of white sailors allowed them to die at sea. In other words, more than 800 people died as a direct consequence of the white supremacy that they were trying to change. I don't think it's just the freezing water that makes this so horrible.
posted by a sourceless light at 1:55 PM on February 17 [13 favorites]

I was trying to look at it from the viewpoint of the men who died.
posted by Bee'sWing at 2:24 PM on February 17

A classic example of Man's Inhumanity to Man. Or, more accurately, White Man's Inhumanity to Non-White Man. There may have been other groups more Racist, but the White Man has been more successfully brutal in His Racism than any others.
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:11 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]

The Darro made no attempt to rescue the men in the water...

Why?? Was it tea time or they didn't want to rescue black men?

What rotten awful pricks we were/are sometimes.
posted by james33 at 8:10 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]

My great grandfather served in a "native" pioneer (labour) unit in 1918/19. I don't know which (I've only seen one photo of him, in a corporal's uniform, date 1918) and heard my grandfather's stories, which suggested he served in France at the very end of the war and during the first year of peace. But since his home island was part of Fiji, I'm assuming it was the Fijian Labour Corps. I'd love to know more of his story, but hardly anything's been passed down.

Anyone interested in the wider story of non-White, "imperial" service personnel and labour contingents in the First World War might want to look at the essays in Race, Empire, and First World War Writing, ed. Santanu Das. It's a huge topic and goes way beyond the SS Mendi.
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:24 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]

Why?? Was it tea time or they didn't want to rescue black men?

I wish we had more information about why. It seems as though nobody has firmly pegged a motivation on the captain.
posted by Emma May Smith at 8:55 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]

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