A Forgotten Story: the ss Mendi

On the calm but bitterly cold and foggy morning of the 21st February 1917 the troopship Mendi was involved in a collision with the mail ship Darro off of the Isle of Wight. The Mendi sank with frightening speed, sealing the fate of over 600 members of the South African Native Labour Corps who perished in the cold English Channel.

As the ship sank beneath the waves the following words were reported as having been spoken to calm the men on the deck by the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha:

‘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. Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies’.

In South Africa the Mendi is famous; a symbol of a racially divided past and an icon of unity and reconciliation. In Britain, in whose waters she lies today, the story of the Mendi is almost unknown.

In a thought-provoking workshop designed for KS3 students, we investigate the wreck of the Mendi to discover how the men of the SANLC became involved in a war so far from their home. Through this we explore how the wreck relates to WW1, British colonialism, ethnicity and racism.

Curriculum links at KS3

This workshop is designed to support National Curriculum history study unit 10: Britain 1750-1900 and 13: A world study after 1900. It can be a powerful addition to the teaching of citizenship as it involves discussion of race and racism through themes of our colonial past. It can also be a thoughtful addition to teaching during Black History Month, held every year for the past thirty years in October.