South African native labourers buried in Portsmouth

Steamship SS Mendi, which sank on 21 February ...

The SS Mendi (Image via Wikipedia)

While I’ve been looking at the Australian Great War troops buried in Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth, I have also come across other foreign nationals who are buried in military war graves in the city. Servicemen from Canada, the Netherlands and Belgium are buried in Milton, Kingston and Highland Road. But by far the largest contingent are South Africans, of the South African Native Labour Corps. They were killed in one of Britain’s worst ever maritime disasters.

Thousands of black south african natives were recruited to provide a non-combatant labour pool for the vast BEF on the Western Front. The intention was to free-up infantry from fatigue duties to allow them to concentrate on front-line duties. Black South Africans were not obliged to perform war service, but could volunteer to work on a contract basis. Historians have argued that using black native labour in an inferior support role was acceptable, given the prevailing ideology at the time. It was also deemed acceptable to contain the natives in their camps at all times, and to not let them anywhere near the front line.

A total of eight men from the Native Labour Corps are buried in Milton Cemetery. They were all killed when their troopship the SS Mendi was sunk off St Catherines Point, on the Isle of Wight. On the night of 21 February 1917 the Mendi was transporting 823 men and officers of the 5th Battalion of the Native Labour Corps from Cape Town to Le Havre, via Lagos and Plymouth. At 5am she was hit by the SS Daro, a meat ship travelling to Argentina.

Legend has it that when the Mendi sank, Reverend Isaac Dyoba rallied the men calling;

“”Be quiet and calm my countrymen, for what is taking place now is what you came here to do. We are going to die, and that is what we came for. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Zulu, say here and now that you are all my brothers… Xhosas, Swazis, Pondos, Basotho and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons ofAfrica. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.. Let us die like brothers.”

616 South Africans were killed, 607 of them black labourers. The 30 British crew were also killed. The majority of those killed were lost at sea, and are remembered on the Hollybrook War Memorial in Southampton. Presumably the few bodies that were recovered were brought to Portsmouth, being the nearest port and the location of military hospitals. 200 men survived. It is estimated that up to 140 men may have died trapped in the hull.

Looking at the information we know of the natives, we can learn a lot about how just how different their way of life was. Many only have one name. In most cases there are very few of the details that we would expect with white European casualties, such as full names and addresses. People in different cultures obviously recorded their names and details very differently, and it seems also that the personnel administration for native labourers was a lot more lax than for British troops.

Other men who died on the Mendi are buried elsewhere: one at Hastings, one at Littlehampton, one at Wimeraux in France (south of Calais) and two in Holland (Wassenaar and Bergen-op-Zoom). Some of the survivors drifted ashore in their lifeboats as far afield as Dorset. It is touching to note that whilst they were treated as inferior in life, in death the native labourers whose bodies were found were all given standard CWGC war graves, under the commonwealths forward thinking policy (for the time) of making no distinction between rank, race, colour or creed.

With political developments in South Africa and elsewhere in the 94 years since the Mendi went down, 600 black labourers dying in such tragic circumstances in a ‘white mans war’ has been a subject of much discussion in South Africa, but is little-known in Britain. The Wreck of the Mendi is now a protected war grave, and has been subject of investigations by English Heritage and Wessex Archaeology.




Filed under Empire History, Uncategorized, World War One

14 responses to “South African native labourers buried in Portsmouth

  1. John Erickson

    A noteworthy story I was unaware of. Thank you.
    If you ever see any headstones from Hamilton, Ontario, please let me know. I have contacts with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry up there, and might be able to pull more information for you.

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