On the morning of 21 February 1917, the troopship Mendi collided with the Darro near the Isle of Wight, on the English Channel. The Mendi sank with a contigent of black South African troops, on their way to France to fight the war on the British side
On 21 February 1917, at 05:00, the ship SS MENDI was struck and cut almost in half by the SS Darro, causing the SS MENDI to sink. A total of 607 Black South African soldiers and nine of their fellow countrymen, drowned in the disaster. South African oral tradition gave rise to the best known legend as to how these men met their fate with African dignity. It is recorded that Rev Wauchope Dyobha, to calm the panic and quieten the men in their hour of death, caught their attention by raising his arms aloft in the true tradition of his race, as he cried out in a loud voice:
"Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is 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, Basotho ... so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegaais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies."
A short silence followed, then these soldiers, who were from the mines, the kraals and the open veld, shed their army boots and started to dance the "dance of death", with all the vigor they could muster.
Rev Dyobha would have induced them to sing what is today part of our National Anthem, "Nkosi Sikelel I Africa" (God Bless Africa), the first verse having been written in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga.
Blacks had played a very important role in the First World War, as part of the South African Native Labour Corps. Of the 802 black troops on board, 607 died, so did 9 of their 21 white officers and 31 of the 69 crew members.
A memorial for these men is at Holbrook, near Southampton. A plaque at the Delville Wood Museum in France, a little known memorial in Port Elizabeth and the new Mendi memorial in Avalon graveyard, Soweto, also commemorate the disaster. The Mendi Scholarship Fund was subsequently formed with the prime object of making higher education available for black children in South Africa. To date the fund has awarded more than 4 500 bursaries.
Text by Ian Ransome, SA Legion
Taken from: http://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/ss-mendi-meets-disaster [21.02.2013]