Pondoland, Transkei and the tragedy of the SS Mendi.

Transkei History – The Tragedy of the SS Mendi

On 21 February 1917, during World War 1, the SS Mendi was struck by another ship not far from the Isle of Wight, in British waters, and was badly damaged. It sank. More than 600 South African men died.

Many of these men were from Pondoland, which is part of The Eastern Cape, South Africa. They were of the Ndamase, Bokleni and many other families, and had been recruited to help the British.

The current king of Western Pondoland, King Ndamase ll, who was coronated in 2018, is part of the same Ndamase family.

A typical rural landscape in Pondoland

They were the passengers on board the SS Mendi, which left Cape Town towards the end of January 1917. The ship was carrying 823 men from the 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps when the tragedy happened. Travelling at some speed in foggy, dangerous waters 20 kilometres from the Isle of Wight, the Darro, a mail ship twice the size of the Mendi, crashed into the smaller boat.

The SS Mendi

The larger ship initially did not stop to help the SS Mendi and its drowning passengers and crew. It took less than half an hour for the stricken vessel to sink.

The story of the SS Mendi was saved by oral history, as the British preferred to forget this ‘unfortunate incident’.

Some 200 men survived the disaster. These survivors were able to tell their lost comrades’ stories, making sure that those who died would not become yet another historical absence, an unknown group of mainly black men at the bottom of the sea.

The Chief Hendry Bokleni SS Mendi Memorial near Libode.

The story of the Reverend Dyobha was especially compelling; in his final address on board the Mendi. As it was sinking, the Reverend comforted those who would not make it into a lifeboat by telling them:

‘You are going to die, but that is what you came to do… let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais [spears] back in the kraals [villages], our voices are left with our bodies.

The SS Mendi Memorial at Atteridgeville, Cape Province.

The book on the subject ‘Men of the Mendi’ by Brenda Shepherd, is well researched, and covers the whole incident. Assorted novels about the tragedy have also been written.

The Himeville Museum in Kwa Zulu Natal has a splendid display of photos and information on the tragedy.

The Himeville Museum, KZN.

The SS Mendi Memorial near Libode (Libode is a small town in Pondoland, between Mthatha and Port St Johns),which was erected by the family of the men who died, is difficult to find, but bumping over the uneven dirt track (read: goat track) to it, is worthwhile. There are three other South African memorials to the men who died: in Cape Town, Atteridgeville and Port Elizabeth. There is also a memorial in Portsmouth, UK.

The Mendi Memorials in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth

The SS Mendi Memorial at Portsmouth, UK
The Galavanter at King Ndamase ll’s coronation

By Kathryn Costello

I travel. I read. I get up to mischief. I write about what I have been up to. I also have fun writing down the stories that I told my daughter when she was little about a dolphin named Michaela. I am a tourism consultant. Owning and managing a successful guesthouse, working for tourism organizations and travelling has given me a lot of insight about what makes a tourism orientated business successful.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: