Reverend Isaac Wauchope

Black Valour

1852 — 1917
Artist: Madi Phala
Location: World War I training ground, University of Cape Town
The late Madi Phala’s memorial, conjuring the prow of a sinking ship and the floating hats and helmets of drowned soldiers, honours the troops of the SA Native Labour Corps who died when the SS Mendi sank during in World War I
Picture: Garth Stead © Sunday Times

Early on the morning of February 21, 1917, a month after leaving Cape Town harbour, the troopship SS Mendi was rammed in thick fog in the English Channel. She sank in 20 minutes. On board, the Reverend Isaac Wauchope rallied the servicemen, the last contingent of the South African Native Labour Corps, to support the war effort in Europe: "You are going to die, but that is what you came here to do... Let us die like warriors, the sons of Africa." Wauchope was among the dead that morning. Of the 895 on board, 647 lost their lives, among them 607 black troops.

From The Archives
The Prison Poet
In 1910, the Reverend Wauchope was found guilty of fraud after "doctoring" the last will and testament of one of his parishioners. His guilt was questionable and he received no financial reward from the "crime". In prison, Wauchope wrote several poems.
On best behaviour
For most of Wauchope’s Port Elizabeth parishioners, his incarceration was a travesty. Not only was his guilt questionable, but he was "advanced in age" and deserved to spend his twilight years in his community.
Calling all able-bodied men
During World War I, newspaper adverts targeted black men to join the Allied war effort.
Unarmed Soldiers
21 000 members of the South African Native Labour Corps were sent to provide labour on the front line in France where they were treated like the second-class citizens they were in South Africa.
I was there...
Few troops survived the SS Mendi tragedy, but those that did brought back stories of remarkable courage.
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.
Letters of commiseration
For many black South Africans, the sinking of the SS Mendi was a disaster on two fronts: first, because of the lives lost and, second, because it was feared that black involvement in the war effort would end.
Life Stories
Hero of the high seas
At the time of his death, Reverend Isaac Williams Wauchope had published historical, educational and political articles, as well as travelogues, poems and letters.
Drilling the death drill on a sinking ship
To those who question the black South African contribution to World War I, Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane tells the story of the sinking of the SS Mendi.
A watery grave is recalled on solid ground
There is a nondescript grassy embankment on the Mowbray campus of the University of Cape Town and just beneath it a bronze sculpture that recalls a tragedy and an act of heroism.
Heritage artwork is doubly poignant
A memorial dedicated to 647 South African men who died at sea on their way to fight in World War I now doubles as a tribute to its creator, the slain artist, Madi Phala.
Making the Memorial
Who is Madi Phala?
"I have this belief that I have put my signature on the Mother City’s belly and we’ve made a baby now," said the late artist, Madi Phala.
The Light Bulb Moment: The Artist's concept
Madi Phala’s memorial conjures the prow of a sinking ship and the floating hats and helmets of the drowned soldiers of the SA Native Labour Corps.
Madi Phala: The 'Herd Boy' Artist in his prime
Madi Phala, who was fatally stabbed outside his home in Langa, Cape Town, in May 2007, was established as one of South Africa’s most talented artists. But he felt he had just reached his prime and was looking forward to big things.
"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.