While most of the exhibition pieces that make up the Port Natal Maritime Museum have been a part of the museum for a very long time, a relatively recent addition commemorates one of the most significant events in South Africa’s naval history, the sinking of the SS Mendi. The memorial stone that was unveiled as part of Armed Forces day on the 21st February 2017, bears the following inscription:
Before dawn on 21 February 1917, the SS Mendi was accidentally struck by the SS Darro while crossing the English Channel, for service in World War One, resulting in the death of 618 men of the 5th Battalion South African Native Contingent, 9 Officers and NCOs, and 33 crew. Among the dead were 87 black soldiers from KwaZuluNatal. Survivors recorded that the men met their fate with great dignity. They know no grave but the sea.
Having largely been neglected by both the South African and the British governments, the story of the SS Mendi, and the people she carried to their deaths, has in recent years finally received the attention and acknowledgment that it deserves. The 2017/2018 issue of Umlando featured an image of the historic ship on its cover, and we recently discussed Fred Khumalo’s Dancing the Death Drill, a fictionalised account of the sinking of the SS Mendi. Other books which examine the events of that fateful day some 100 years ago include, Troopship Mendi: The Black Titanic by Nick Ward; We Die Like Brothers: The Sinking of the SS Mendi by John Gribble and Nick Scott; Men of the Mendi: South Africa’s Forgotten Heroes of World War I by Brenda Shepherd; Black Sacrifice: The Sinking of the SS Mendi, 1917 by Sandi Baai; and Black Valour: The South African Native Labour Contingent, 1916-1918 and the Sinking of the Mendi.
Most recently Swedish photographer and visual ethnographer, Susanne Holm’s thesis, Re-Framing SS Mendi: Curating and Commemorating a Missing Memory in South Africa, was reprinted for the SA Naval Museum. The publication, which centres to a large extent around the 2017 Abantu beMendi project, examines the Mendi from a slightly different perspective, looking at the impact of purposefully neglected histories, and how art can play a role in recreating memories. Holm’s also examines the centenary of the Mendi in the context of the student activism that was taking place at the time in South Africa. A quote used in the book speaks to the complexities of addressing ‘missing memories’:
Being omitted from history has its own dangers, of course, but being inserted into history is no easy matter either.” – Albert Grundlingh (2011:28)
A short film by Holm offers insight into her work surrounding the SS Mendi, and that of the Abantu beMendi project.
Cover image courtesy of www.shphotography.org