By Sarah Pridgeon
The news has been plastered with so many devastating events recently that some days seem to warp into a blur of shock and sadness. A wise person once pointed out that, in times where evil holds dominance, you should always look around for those who are helping.
In that spirit, I wanted to share with you a story that brought a little lightness into my world at a time when it’s sorely needed. It’s a tale that began exactly one hundred years ago and ended last week on a small island I could almost see from my bedroom window when I was a child.
We join the story in 1917, as a steamship makes its ponderous way through the English Channel. The men on board – a mixed bag of British officers, stewards, cooks and gunners; a Swede, a Dane and two Russians; and West African crew members mostly from Sierra Leone – have been at sea for 34 days on their way from Cape Town, South Africa.
Below the decks are 823 men, sleeping in bunks or resting their heads on life preservers. These men are from the South African Labour Corps, waiting to join the war effort in France.
Who are the 823? Another mixed bag, boarding from all across the South African provinces and the territories nearby with few traits to tie them together other than skin color.
The corps had been formed the year before in response to the British Imperial War Cabinet’s need for more laborers. Lacking strong hands to unload ships, build railways, set up camps and tackle all those important details that keeps an army on the move, it had sent out a request for manual workers.
These are different times – worse times – and the men on this ship are not allowed to bear arms, must stay segregated and are not eligible for military honors. The government does not want a black man to fight with a white man on equal terms for fear of “contaminating” the superiority of Caucasian skin.
So why did these men sign their names on a dotted line? For many reasons of their own, I’m sure, but at least partly in the hope of furthering their own cause politically.
Their government did not really want them to be on this ship, upsetting the balance of power, but Britain has insisted. And so here they are, waiting to join the war effort. Behind them is a Royal Navy destroyer, watching for U-boats. Ahead of them is little but saltwater and fog.
Dawn has barely broken when a third ship looms into sight. It’s the Darro, a cargo vessel double the size of the little steamboat, and it hasn’t slowed down for the fog.
The inevitable happens. The Mendi doesn’t stand a chance. The gash in its forward hold, right where some of the men are sleeping, is too large.
Things happen quickly now – though, exactly what those things are, we will never quite be sure. We do know that orders are not given to the 823 men below decks, that the ship lists and sinks below the surface within 20 short minutes, that the lifeboats are never lowered, that hundreds of men are thrown into the cold, winter sea with nothing but life rafts to keep them afloat.
We know that the captain of the Darro does nothing to help. This, we will never be able to explain.
We know that Pastor Isaac Dyobha rallies those men who can’t reach a lifeboat, leading them in a death dance. His exact words are unclear, though we know he calls on them to die as brothers, crying out to his fellow sons of Africa to, “Calmly face your death! This is what you came to do!”
Two thirds of the souls on that ship are lost to the cold and the water. Their bodies wash up on the shore as far away as the Netherlands.
We’ll leave the story now for many decades, during which it was given little attention. Unsurprisingly, this proof of racial inequality was not something the South African government wanted remembered with annual salutes.
But the story was never forgotten – not by the people to whom it most mattered. It was handed down orally, surviving almost in its entirety until the present day.
Times do change, and we change with them, and today the site of the tragedy is an official war grave, with a memorial nearby that was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II and Nelson Mandela himself. In 2003, the Mendi Medal was introduced as South Africa’s highest honor for bravery.
And last week, the story ended on a happy note. A BBC reporter was moseying on back to his house on the Isle of Wight – the same one I could once almost see through my window – and spotted a lump sat outside his door wrapped in trash bags.
When he unwrapped it, he found a bell inside, a couple of feet high and bearing the name of the S.S. Mendi. Curiouser and curiouser, I assume he thought.
A note inside the package revealed that the previous owner had seen a documentary about the centenary of the sinking and had realized what he’d had all those years. He wanted to make sure it went to its rightful place and didn’t think he could do that without help.
“This needs to be sorted out before I pass away as it could get lost,” the note read.
It’s known that the South African government has been attempting to recover Mendi artifacts, so hopefully the bell will find its way back home again. There, if all goes well, it will tell its story to new generations, no longer hidden from memory.
One day soon, with a following wind, the Mendi bell will stand as tribute to the bravery of the downtrodden, the hope of the few and the brighter future we’ve been building since the sad day our story started, one hundred years ago.