The Information Manager at the Anglican Communion Office, Stephanie Taylor, explains how racism led to one of the tragedies of the Great War becoming a scandal of the war: a tragedy that was “hidden in plain sight”.
A bracing but clear and bright day, I am at St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight with my children. The waves crash against the rocks beneath the lighthouse and the autumn sunlight sparkles on the sea. The scene is idyllic but we are not here for the view. We are here because it is the eve of the centenary of Armistice Day, and I want my children to hear a story.
As we stand looking upon the horizon there are a handful of people here walking, exercising their dogs, or surfing but just 12 miles out to sea there lies the wreck of a ship lost in the Great War, the SS Mendi. My children don’t yet know the story of the Mendi, neither did I until recently. They have been learning about the First World War at school. For them, as for me as a young child, stories of the world wars meant family connections, the service of grandfathers and great grandfathers but I wanted them to know that this wasn’t the only narrative, that those who paid the ultimate price were not exclusively white British but included the sons of many nations.
As explained by Wessex Archaeology, “in Britain the story of the SS Mendi is almost unknown but in South Africa she is famous; a symbol of a racist past and an icon of unity and reconciliation.”
The SS Mendi, escorted by the naval destroyer HMS Brisk was carrying 823 men from the Fifth Battalion South African Native Labour Corps en route to France where the men were to serve as labourers on the Western Front. On the night of 21 February 1917 it was hit by a cargo ship, the SS Darro in heavy fog and sank within 25 minutes. Whilst the Brisk rescued survivors, the Darro did not. Almost two weeks later the South African Prime Minister, General Louis Botha announced the tragedy to the Cape Parliament stating: “I am sorry to say the loss is a heavy one.”
It was indeed, for 646 souls, overwhelmingly black South Africans lost their lives. None of the black servicemen, living or dead were awarded medals, and in both the UK and apartheid South Africa, the story of the Mendi was largely forgotten from official history. It was not taught as part of school curriculums but from one generation of black South Africans to the next the story of the Mendi was told.
Today, 21 February is commemorated as South Africa Armed Forces Day, and the Order of the Mendi for Bravery is a South African honour. There are several memorials to the Mendi: including in Soweto – unveiled by President Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth in 1995; at the Delville Wood South African National Memorial at the Somme, and across the Solent from the Isle of Wight at the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton. The story and spirit of the Mendi and her precious cargo are now told through film, art, literature, and most recently as part of the 14-18 Now commissions, through theatre. To that list and to all the voices telling the story from one generation to the next, I add my own small voice, walking with my children, and laying red roses on the eve of Armistice Day at what is now a designated war grave.
The British Council writes: “when whole swathes of peoples’ experiences are overlooked by studies of the past, they are sometimes referred to as ‘hidden histories’. Often, they are hidden in plain sight. These stories are there if you have the time, energy and knowledge required to seek out the clues, or if someone points them out for you.” Thank you to those who kept this story alive, and pointed it out to me.
This Armistice Day let me hand it on to you, please pass it on, and let the last word fittingly be from Soweto born, Father Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu, from his poem about the Mendi, “Waters of Wars Unknown”:
“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.