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On The Centenary Of The Sinking Of The SS Mendi

Perhaps the most moving of the accounts is that in that dark and foggy state the men’s voices could be heard as they called to each other.

21/02/2017 10:26 SAST | Updated 21/02/2017 10:28 SAST
Die Burger / Media 24 Newspapers / Getty Images
26 March 2000. Commemoration ceremony held in February every year, to mark the 1917 sinking of the SS Mendi troopship, and the death of 600 of the 805 black South African soldiers heading to France to fight in WWI.

"Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, 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 back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies."

Those were the words of Reverend Isaac Dyobha as the SS Mendi sank.

Exactly 100 years ago on the 21 February 1917 the SS Mendi a ship carrying Southern African men who were part of the South African Labour Corps (African men who were taken to offer support to the English Army during World War One) was bumped on the side by a commercial ship the SS Darro. Within 25 minutes the SS Mendi sank. Almost 650 men drowned and some were killed by hypothermia. Survivors of that terrible accident that took place just off the Isle of Wight in the English Channel spoke of great bravery that was displayed as the ships sank. Perhaps the most moving of the accounts is that in that dark and foggy state the men's voices could be heard as they called to each other; "Ho, 'so and so', child of my mother, are you dead that you do not hear my voice?" and "Ho, talk to me, men of 'so and so', that we may all die together."

Waters of Wars Unknown

Commemorating the Centenary of the Sinking of the SS Mendi

Was it these Isles that dared a warrior to silence;

These tides that rose to quell the brave?

Was it war that robbed of peace?

Or did settler's snare a nation's posterity rob?

The fog still and robbing of sight,

a nation's destiny it could not blight,

Rhythms of home bellowed within,

Ancestral war-cries in refrain persist.

These Isles dared to silence the warrior

They know whose spirit they dared to bend

Countrymen's force bid even tide arise,

Ocean tide reaching, dancing and clashing

Retreating as if to gather strength,

Advancing, hurling, ululating

as if Bantu regiments in complete might.

Warriors did death before them face,

Its stench, its definiteness their sights dared,

Yet even the heat robbing cool

Couldn't a people's heat overwhelm,

a people's spirit in gut blazed

for ancestors stood before them in embrace.

Even in death's advancing silence,

Circumstance willing a turn only to self,

Even then to each other they turned;

"Wooo mtaka baba! Woo mtaka ma!

Are you dead that you do not hear my voice?"

The living across Africa's shores retort;

We are not dead!

Nor the sound of your voice unheard,

Your voice heralded even to the future unknown,

Your lying down was rightly with glee,

Knowing your own will never chart

waters of wars unknown,

your own will in freedom's peace sail.