Monday the 21st of February marks the 100th anniversary of one of the worst maritime disasters to occur in British waters. There were 616 South African men and 30 crew who lost their lives off the coast of the Isle of Wight on that fateful day in February. Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal will attend a memorial ceremony commemorating the sinking of the SS Mendi.
During World War I, the British enlisted the labour of South Africans. The SS Mendi collided with the much larger cargo ship the SS Darro just ten naudical miles south of St Catherine’s Point. Some of the men were killed on impact, while others were trapped below deck. Remarkably, the SS Darro remained unscathed. It took the SS Mendi just twenty-five minutes to sink.
The South African High Comission has organised the ceremony. They have arranged for a ship to leave South Hampton, follow the course of the SS Mendi and go to the Isle of Wight where a wreath will be left at the site where the tragic accident occured.
This tragedy has gone down in South African history. It is reported that the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha calmed the men by encouraging them to die like brothers: “You are going to die, but that is what you came here to do… Let us die like warriors, the sons of Africa.” The Reverend also lost his life, and the dignity of all those who died is what continues to go down in history. Not everyone on the SS Mendi drowned. There were nearly 850 people on the ship when it collided with the SS Darro.
Her Royal Highness will also visit the Hollybrook Memorial in South Hampton. This memorial commemorates the 1900 service men and women who have either died at sea or whose graves are unknown.