SS Mendi was a
steamship of the Elder Dempster Line, requisitioned by the
British government as a troopship in 1916. She sank off the Isle
of Wight in 1917 with the loss of 646 lives, mostly from the
South African Military. She was built by Alexander Stephen &
Sons who also built the Tea Clipper Gossamer lost on the Devon
coast in 1868.
Elder Dempster Lines Ltd. - African Steamship Co.,
112.8 x 14.1 x 7.1 m
Alexander Stephen and Sons, Glasgow, Scotland,
Yard No. 407
Triple expansion engine, two boilers, single screw.
424 hp 14 knots
Requisitioned in 1916 by the British Government
Sank following a collision with SS Darro in 1917
On 21 February 1917, during the First World War, Mendi was
transporting 823 personnel of the 5th Battalion the South
African Native Labour Corps to France. She was en-route from
Cape Town to Plymouth via Lagos in Nigeria where a gun was
fitted to her stern. then on to Plymouth. She then left Plymouth
for Le Have in Northern France. At 5 am, while being escorted by
the destroyer HMS Brisk, Mendi was struck amidships and cut
almost in half by the SS Darro which was an empty meat ship
bound for Argentina.
616 South Africans (607 of them black troops) plus thirty crew
members, mostly British, died in the disaster. The troops on the
ship were from the South African Labour Corp who had been
assembled from mostly the kingdom of Pondo in the Eastern Cape.
Very few of the bodies were ever recovered.
For some reason the crew of the Darro made no attempt to rescue
survivors, but lifeboats from HMS Brisk helped recover some of
The Captain of the Darro, Henry W. Stump was found guilty of
"having travelled at a dangerously high speed in thick fog, and
of having failed to ensure that his ship emitted the necessary
fog sound signals." and had his licence suspended for one year.
The following photograph is of the men of the South African
Labour Corps being inspected by King George V.: Photograph
courtesy of the South African National Museum of Military
Why he never stopped to pick up survivors was never established
but some historians believe it may have been for racial
After the War, none of the black servicemen on the Mendi,
neither the survivors nor the dead, or any other members of the
South African Native Labour Corps, received a British War Medal
or a ribbon. Their white officers did. This was South African
decision. Black members of the South African Labour Corps from
the neighbouring British Protectorates of Basutoland (modern
Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Swaziland did receive
The wreck of the SS Mendi was not positively identified until
1974 when divers recovered an engraved brass boss.
The following is a photo of one of the portholes from the
wreck. Callum Beveridge who recovered the porthole arranged for
go to the Museum in South Africa.
The following is a wheel boss recovered from the wreck by
Roger Simon Bowstone Diving
The wreck of SS Mendi can be found upright in 50m of water in
Select the image below to get
the Wessex Archaeology report:
Select the image to see an educational video
from the Imperial War Museum
1. Grundlingh, A, Fighting Their Own War - South African
Blacks and the First World War, (Ravan Press, Johannesburg,
1987), pp 139-140.
2. Grundlingh, Fighting Their Own War, p 140.
3. Grundlingh, Fighting Their Own War, p 140.
4. Clothier, N, Black Valour - The South African Native
Labour Contingent, 1916-1918 and the Sinking of the Mendi,
(University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 1987), pp 96-8.
5. See Clothier, Black Valour, pp 90-1, for the latter
view. Grundlingh, Fighting Their Own War, is one of those who
questions Stump's racial attitudes, p 95.
6. Grundlingh, Fighting Their Own War, pp 106-107.