The Sinking of the SS Mendi

For more than 600 black South Africans, there were to be no fine deeds serving for the glory of the British King and for Africa, no quick death in the heat of battle, simply a miserable end in the icy English Channel, as Caroline Coxon explains.

There is a timeline on the internet which claims to show ‘every event of the First World War’. Setting aside scepticism at such audacity, it is little surprise that the sinking of the SS Mendi in 1917 does not feature. Why would it? It is one of those events that could easily be swamped by a hundred others. Yet this story has achieved an almost legendary status in South Africa. 

When war was declared in 1914, the countries of the British Empire and its Dominions could not remain neutral. For the people of rural South Africa how distant and irrelevant hostilities in Europe might have seemed, yet many considered that the war was theirs.

In the words of Stimela Jason Jingoes, a survivor of the Mendi disaster and member of the SANLC, for example. ‘The pictures that the newspapers drew of men doing battle in trenches in the mud and the cold of France, fascinated and horrified me… I felt growing in me the conviction that I should go away and help in some way.’ Others were understand­ably reluctant to support an Empire that often denied them the most basic human rights, especially since the 1913 Land Act had them evicted from farms that had been their homes for generations.

As an anonymous letter intercepted by the Govern­ment Native Labour Bureau in September 1914 said,  ‘We are no friends of the whites. When you, the whites, are in a fix you begin to recognise us as your friends… the war is not ours but yours….’

However, the South African Native National Congress immediately affirmed loyalty to the King and suspended all criticism of the government for the duration of the war. In March 1917 their leader, J.L. Dube, said ‘We were not loyal because our treatment was good... but because we wanted to show that we were loyal and that we were deserving of fair and just treatment.’

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