21 February 2017

100 Years since the sinking of the SS Mendi

21 February 2017 marks the centennial commemoration of the sinking of the SS Mendi. Chartered as a troopship to serve in the First World War in 1916, the SS Mendi undertook its final voyage departing from Cape Town with 823 men on board, en route to France. The SS Mendi stopped at Lagos, Nigeria to mount a naval gun on its stern before making its next port of call, Plymouth. Heading up the English Channel, disaster struck when a large British cargo steamship, the Darro, collided with the SS Mendi. This was one of South Africa's worst marine tragedies in which more than 600 troops, most of whom were black South African troops, perished in the freezing English Channel. 

Worse still, is the fact that the Darro did not stop to help save survivors. Even with the huge loss of life the captain of the Darro was not held accountable for his actions. Historically, before the advent of democracy in South Africa, the SS Mendi was commemorated to a greater degree in Britain than South Africa. As a result of this many families never knew what happened to their husbands and sons who went off to fight in The Great War. 

As part of the Sunday Times 2006 centenary celebrations, SAHA conducted extensive research on the SS Mendi and aided by archival materials created a resource booklet for educators. The resource booklet was to contibute to the history of the participation of black troops in WWI as well as to examine the complexities of studying war and peace. 

The centenary presents us with the opportunity to reflect on this event and commemorate the men who lost their lives so far away from home. 

For educators wishing to decolonise their teaching of the First World War, the sinking of the SS Mendi and the SAHA teaching resource is a valuable tool for the achievement of goal!

Resources available

Download the resource booklet for educators (4.90 MB)