“Be quiet and calm my countrymen, for what is taking place now is what you came here to do. We are all going to die, and that is what we came for.”
Those were the words of Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, a chaplain in the South African Native Labour Corps, a group of black South Africans who were onboard the British steamship SS Mendi en route to the Western Front to support British troops when disaster struck.
It was in the early hours of February 21, 1917, when the SS Mendi, having left Plymouth for the French Port Le Havre, was struck by a much larger vessel, Darro, a few miles south of the Isle of Wight.
According to Graham Scott, co-author of a book We Die Like Brothers, which shares the story of the tragedy, the Darro, which was travelling at full speed without observing the adverse weather condition, crashed into the side of the Mendi, “causing a deep hole in one of its forward holes where many of the SANLC men were sleeping.”
Within 20 minutes of being hit, Mendi sank, killing about 607 of the 802 black troops she was carrying to the Western Front and nine of their white officers.
Historical accounts state that in all, the lives of 646 men, including 30 crew, were lost and most of the bodies were never recovered.
Scott states that there were only 267 survivors, adding that “hundreds of men were forced to jump into an unusually cold February sea and cling to the ship’s primitive life rafts, hoping for rescue before the cold killed them.”
“It is possible that up to 140 men died trapped inside the hull, but most drowned or died from hypothermia in the cold waters (estimated to have been 7°C) of the English Channel,” other accounts state.
In spite of the carnage it had caused, the Darro did not help rescue victims, and the captain of the ship, Henry Stump would later have his licence suspended for a year.
After the tragedy, the accident was immediately forgotten in Britain and in South Africa, a white-run parliament paid its last respect to those who died, although this honour did not really meet the black men on board.
No pension was given to those who returned, only compensation for injury or death, about £50 ($58) while white officers were better provided for, according to Scott.
There were plans to award black ex-SANLC members the British War Medal but these were opposed by the South African Government and the British also dropped the idea.
The established view in Britain at the time was that the white man was superior to other races and hence weapons should not be put into the hands of colonial subjects.
“When war broke out in 1914, the fledgling Union of South Africa entered the war as a British dominion. In the years between 1910 and the outbreak of war, most of the Union’s black population had been denied the right to vote, while legislation had restricted their right to own or lease almost all productive land, ensuring a supply of poor, landless labour for the white-owned mines and factories.
“Despite this treatment, men from South Africa’s black majority served and died in large numbers as non-combatants in East Africa. Initially, their government was reluctant to allow them to serve in Europe, for fear that this would encourage black political consciousness and upset the delicate balance of power that allowed the white minority to dominate and control the black majority.
“However, as the need for a non-combatant labour force grew increasingly urgent, British pressure on the South Africans also grew. Eventually, the South African government relented and in 1916-17, just under 21,000 men of the South African Native Labour Corps went to France,” according to Scott.
The story of the SS Mendi was initially disregarded by the official histories of the First World War and only had to passed down orally.
It was only brought into the mainstream after the end of apartheid in South Africa.
The popular part of the Mendi disaster is believed to be Isaac Dyobha’s alleged exhortation to the black men on the deck of the sinking ship to face death and “die like brothers.”
He was a black intellectual from the East Cape who was originally recruited as an interpreter for the labour corps (SANLC).
Ceremonies have since been held to embrace the memory of the SANLC.
In 1995, former South African president, Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth II, the granddaughter of George V, unveiled a memorial to the Mendi at Avalon Cemetery in Soweto, South Africa.
In 2003, South Africa’s civilian order for bravery was renamed the Order of Mendi, in honour of the shipwrecked men.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May has also announced this week that a World War One relic linked to the disaster is to be given to South Africa.
Noted as one of the worst maritime disasters in UK waters of the 20th century, the sinking of the Mendi for many South African people, is a symbol of the fight for social justice and equality.