Parliment pays tribute

When the news of the SS Mendi disaster reached South Africa, it caused an outpouring of national grief. Read the Rand Daily Mail's report on what happened during a parliamentary session that ended with all members standing to pay their respects.

Sinking of a Transport

Over 600 Kafirs Drowned

Ten Whites Also Perish

A Disaster in the English Channel

All South Africa will hear with the deepest regret the news that a transport carrying South African native labourers from England to France has been sunk in the English Channel with very considerable loss of life. General Botha's announcement below shows that the disaster was due to a collision in a fog, and that ten Europeans and over six hundred natives were drowned. Hitherto the transporting of thousands of native labourers from this country across the sea has not been attended by the slightest mishap, and the present disaster was not due in any way to the failure of the British Navy to protect the ships engaged from enemy attacks. The sympathies of all South Africans must go out to the relatives of those who perished. Those who went down in the sinking of the Mendi died for their country and for the cause of liberty just as much as those who fall on the field of battle.

The toll, I am sorry to say, is a heavy one

General Botha made his statement in the House of Assembly amid impressive silence. The right hon, gentleman said: It is with deep regret that I have to announce to the House the sadness that the transport Mendi, carrying the last batch of the South African Native Labour Contingent (the rest having been safely landed in France), collided with another vessel during the passage from the United Kingdom to Havre, and sank within 25 minutes. The collision took place 12 miles from the Isle of Wight on Wednesday, February 21, at 4.57 a.m. Owing to the thick fog, the escort's searchlight was ineffective, but the survivors were picked up by various vessels. The toll, I am sorry to say, is a heavy one. Two European officers, 6 European non-commissioned officers, and 607 natives who until yesterday were unaccounted for must be presumed to have been drowned, the total loss thus being 10 Europeans and 615 natives, or 625 lives in all.

Cause of the delay

The difficulty under the circumstances of obtaining authentic information has been the cause of the delay in publishing the doleful tidings, but as the Army Council is making a simultaneous announcement of the details I have given to the House - these being all that are available - and as delay might tend to arouse unworthy suspicion that the Government is wilfully concealing facts. I wish also to say that I communicated at once with the High Commissioner, asking him to see that everything was done for the comfort, care and well-being of the survivors, and this, we are assured, is being done. The surviving officers are Capt. Hertslet, of the medical unit, and Lieut. Van Vuuren, of "B" Co. details, 4th Battalion, while the following non-commissioned officers have been saved: Sergt.-Major Nicoll, Sergts. Mitchell, Thomas, Hamilton, Fitzpatrick, Holmes, and Sykes, of "C" Co., 5th Battalion; Sergts. Hitge and Savage, of "B" Co., 4th Battalion; and Sergt. Davis, of the medical unit. ...

Commissioned officers being Sergts. T. Aford, R. Knaggs, and R. A. McTavish, of "C" Co., 5th Battalion; Sergt. Ch. Botha, of "B" Co., 4th Batallion, and Sergt,-Major T. K. Turner and Staff-Sergts. A. Cockrell and A. B. Botes, of the medical unit.

Particulars of the native survivors are being communicated to our Records Officer, who will then be in a position to advise the relatives of those natives who must be presumed to be drowned. The magistrates and native commissioners have been instructed to inform the chiefs, the headmen and the people of this calamity, so that they may know the truth, and not pay heed to idle and mischievous stories which, as experience has unfortunately proved, may be sedulously circulated. They payment of compensation on the scale recognised in our Union laws will in due course be made to the native families by the Imperial Government through the Union Government.

Mr. Speaker, I am sure every member of this House will join with me in expressing our feelings of sympathy with the wives and families, relatives and friends, of the officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the South African Native Labour Contingent, whose lives have been so suddenly ended...
This House ... resolves to record an expression of its sincere sympathy with the relatives of the deceased officers, non-commissioned officers and natives in their bereavement

To King and country. (Hear, hear.) I therefore move, as an unopposed motion: "That this House has learned with deep regret of the sad loss of life among members of the South African Native Labour Contingent, caused by the collision and sinking of the transport Mendi on February 21, 1917, and resolves to record an expression of its sincere sympathy with the relatives of the deceased officers, non-commissioned officers and natives in their bereavement." (Hear, hear.)

Tribute to the natives

General Botha added: I do not think it is necessary to say anything further, excepting this: If we have ever lived in times when the native people of South Africa have shown great and true loyalty it is in times like the present. (Hear, hear.) Ever since the war broke out the natives have done everything possible to help, where such was possible, in the struggle without ever doing that which was in conflict with their loyalty to the flag and the King. Nearly all my life long I have had to do with the native question, but I have never experienced a time when the native has displayed greater tact and greater loyalty than they have done in the difficult and dark days through which we are now going. It has never happened in the history of South Africa, Mr. Speaker, that in one moment, by one fell swoop, such a lot of people have perished, and, Mr. Speaker, I think that where people have died in the way they have done, it is our duty to remember that they have come forward of their own accord, of their own free will, and that they have said: "If we can help we will do so, even if we have to show our loyalty by working with our hands." (Hear, hear.) They insisted on going, and I think, Mr. Speaker, they deserve every credit for the good work they have done. These people said: "This war is raging, and we want to help", and, in doing so, they have shown their loyalty to their flag, their King and their country, and what they have done will redound to their everlasting credit. (Hear, hear.)

Sir Thos. Smartt seconded. He was sure that the country would receive the news with deep regret, and he was sure that the country would agree with him that the words of the Prime Minister, not only in his capacity as Prime Minister, but also as Minister of Native Affairs, should be circulated throughout the length and breadth of the native territories, so that they could realise that they sympathised not alone with the European people, but also deeply sympathised with the families whose relatives have come forward so nobly and did their part in the struggle in which the Empire was concerned. Nothing could be a greater tribute to their loyalty than the expression of the Prime Minister. The loyalty was a test and an example which showed that the whole administration of native affairs and justice had been appreciated and recognised by the natives themselves. He associated himself in the strongest possible manner in the tribute which the right hon. Gentleman had paid to the natives of this country in expressing sympathy with the natives in this country. Mr. Merriman said that, as one who was once responsible for the administration of native affairs, he desired to add a few words to those that had fallen from the Prime Minister. It was one of the saddest things that had occurred to us in the whole war that those people who had behaved so extremely well should have been called upon to share that great sacrifice. It was one of the most remarkable testimonials to the general idea of fairness of the British rule when they considered that every race, every creed, every colour, on our whole Dominions had done their best.

They were all fighting for the defence of the Bristish Empire and in defence of its cause, and whatever happened in this war they would have reason to be proud of that remarkable fact. That was not the first time that natives had shared our danger. How many times had natives gone to the assistance of Europeans, and how many times had whites gone to the assistance of natives in times of danger. He deeply regretted that the accident should have happened. Some of them thought there was danger in the experiment. But it had turned out entirely satisfactorily. The behaviour of the natives had been extraordinarily good, and it was a great calamity that such an event should have overshadowed them. He hoped that the proposals of the Prime Minister would be gladly accepted by the House. He cordially subscribed to the resolution.

The resolution was carried by the members of the House standing in their places. - Reuter

- "Sinking of a Transport", Rand Daily Mail, March 10, 1917

back to the Reverend Isaac Wauchope memorial page

"You are going to die, but that is what you came to do... Let us die like warriors."
Reverend Isaac Wauchope
King George V inspects the SA Native Labour Corps, France, 1917
Picture: © SA National Museum of Miltary History


In this lesson plan, learners will study two transcripts of oral sources and will be encouraged to appreciate the insights and feelings that these sources offer us. They will also study a "minute" from Louis Botha, the Prime Minister at the time of the disaster, and resolutions passed by a Christian African community on how they planned to carry forward the fight for the Empire.

Lesson plan
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Archive Photo Gallery
A small collection of images of Reverend Wauchope and the men who died with him in the SS Mendi disaster.
The brave Reverend Wauchope
In February 1917, hundreds of SA Native Labour Corps members died when the troopship SS Mendi sank in the freezing waters of the English Channel.