Wednesday 21 February 1917 – We Lost 1,114
At 04:55 in the early morning mist and fog the S S Darro traveling at full speed and emitting no warning signal crashes into the S S Mendi starboard side approximately 18 kilometers off St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight. The Mendi sinks within 25 minutes taking with her five hundred ninety-six men of the South African Native Labor Corps among the six hundred twenty-seven who drown. Of the 805 African servicemen on board, some 607 died, along with nine of the 21 white officers and 31 of the 69 crew members. The captain of the Darro, H W Stump, is later disciplined for travelling at speed through fog without sounding a warning horn. It was also said that he took no steps to save the drowning, merely floating his ship nearby while lifeboats from the SS Mendi’s escorting destroyer, HMS Brisk, rows among survivors, trying to rescue them.
- The dead included the Pondoland chiefs
- Henry Bokleni,
- Dokoda Richard Ndamase
- Mxonywa Bangani.
- There are many legends about the troops’ bravery. Joseph Tshite, a teacher from the Tshwane area, encourages the drowning men around him with hymns and prayers, until he drowns. There is also the story of the white sergeant who is helped by two black compatriots; they swim with him to safety.
- Survivor accounts attest to how the Reverend Isaac Wauchope (also known as Dyobha) exhorts the men: ‘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.’ Those left on board remove their boots and stamp the death dance on the slanting deck of the sinking ship, far from home but united, irrespective of their ethnic origins, according to research from the Sunday Times Heritage Research project. Wauchope tells the men: “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.” Wauchope is among the dead. He is the quintessential missionary-educated African of the late 19th and early 20th He was born in 1852 in Doornhoek near Uitenhage into a family with strong connections to early Christian missionaries. After finishing school at Lovedale Institute, he worked as a teacher in Uitenhage. In September 1882 he played a key role in establishing Imbumba Yamanyama, one of the earliest political associations for Africans in South Africa. In literary history Wauchope is credited with launching protest literature in South Africa. In literary history Wauchope is credited with launching protest literature in South Africa. In May 1882, writing as I W Citashe, he published his first poem. The poem exhorts Africans, after decades of resistance, to abandon their spears, which were no match for European weapons, and adopt other means, such as protest and persuasion. His poem reads, in part:
Your rights are taken away!
Grab a pen,
Load, load it with ink …
Shoot with the pen …
Engage your mind.
Wauchope moved to Port Elizabeth, where he worked as a clerk and interpreter at the magistrate’s court. In 1888 he responded to a call for ‘native’ ministers and studied theology at Lovedale. On 6 March 1892 he was ordained and installed as pastor of the Congregational Native Church of Fort Beaufort and Blinkwater. In 1906 Wauchope joined the movement to create an institution of higher learning for Africans. Ten years later these efforts culminated in the foundation of the South African Native College, now the University of Fort Hare. In 1907 Wauchope fell afoul of the law. After 18 months of administering the estate of a parishioner, he filed a will in his own handwriting and with the signatures of two witnesses. He was later charged with forgery. Despite the lack of evidence that Wauchope profited from the will, or had any intention to defraud anyone, an all-white jury found him guilty. He was sentenced to three years’ hard labor at Tokai prison. He was released in 1912. Four years later he volunteered for the South African Native Labor Contingent and signed on as clerk/interpreter. In 1917 Imvo Zabantsundu, the first African-language newspaper in South Africa, founded by John Tengo Jabavu, described Wauchope as ‘a man of distinction — prominent in church, political, community and educational affairs’. Few such eulogies were written about the rest of the men who went down with the SS Mendi. On receiving the news of the disaster, MPs in the South African House of Assembly rose to their feet as a gesture of respect. Despite this, however, African servicemen received none of the customary acknowledgements of service, such as ribbons or medals, routinely accorded to Europeans.
- Chaplain Koni Luhlongwana (South African Native Labour Corps) is also killed.
Today’s losses include:
- South African Native Chiefs
- A member of the clergy
- A Military Chaplain
- Multiple sons of members of the clergy
- Multiple families that will two sons in the Great War
- An Everton footballer
- A member of the New Zealand Herald staff
- An Elland Wanderers AFC player
- A Scottish footballer for Dundee and Aberdeen
Today’s highlighted casualties include:
- Major William Henry Denne DSO (Bedfordshire Regiment) dies of wounds at age 40. He is the son of the Reverend Richard Henry Denne Rector of Brimsfield and a veteran of the South African War.
- Captain George Staunton Husband DSO (Indian Medical Service) is killed in Mesopotamia at age 37. He is the son of the Reverend C T Husband.
- Lieutenant William Edgar Harry Storer (Australian Light Trench Mortar Battery) is killed at age 24. His brother will be killed in October 1918.
- Lieutenant Douglas Neave Gordon (South Staffordshire Regiment) is killed in action at age 20. His younger brother will be killed in July of this year.
- Sergeant Harold Waddington Boyne (Auckland Infantry) is killed at age 22. He is a keen Association football player for the Everton Club.
- Corporal Edwin Bailey Doidge (Auckland Infantry) is killed at age 26. He is on the staff of the New Zealand Herald and Auckland Weekly News.
- Lance Corporal Thomas Wilfrid Fisher (Border Regiment) dies of wounds at home received in Salonika at age 23. He is the son of the Reverend Arthur Thomas Fisher Vicar of Pocklington.
- Private Alfred Normanton Ridge (Cameron Highlanders) is killed in action at age 22. He played football for the Elland Wanderers AFC.
- Gunner Alexander L Halkett (Royal Field Artillery) is killed at age 35. He is a Scottish professional footballer who played for Dundee, Aberdeen and St Johnstone.