On February 21st 1917 the SS Mendi, an ex-passenger steamer at the end of a six week voyage
carrying troops from Cape Town to serve in France, sank off the Isle of Wight. She had been
accidentally rammed by another British ship twice her size, the Darro. The sinking was one of the
20th century’s worst maritime disasters in UK waters – It has been called ‘the Black Titanic.’
Hours before sunrise on the fatal day, the Mendi was moving slowly through a thick fog, escorted by
the British destroyer H.M.S. Brisk, which provided protection from German U-boats. Belowdecks, the
men slept in their uniforms and coats to keep warm, their heads resting on life preservers. They
were members of the South African Native Labour Contingent, recruited by the Allies to unload
cargo in French ports, to build roads, to cut timber and repair railways, they were explicitly barred
from bearing arms or fighting alongside white soldiers. Most had never seen the sea before and very
few could swim. The officers and NCOs were white Southern Africans, the ship’s crew British sailors
and officers. The ship was the societal breakdown of the British Empire contained within a steel hull.
At 4:57 the Darro slammed into the Mendi. Within twenty minutes the Mendi was underwater, along
with six hundred and forty-six of the men aboard. Read about it here.
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