Ships 2

Ships 3

Steamship Mendi

Death Dance On The Mendi

By James Donahue

Among the strangest stories emerging from a shipwreck on the high seas was that of the “death dance” performed by doomed African passengers aboard the sinking steamship Mendi in 1917.

World War I was raging in Europe and the 370-foot Mendi was under charter by the British government for use as a troopship. The ship was steaming from Cape Town, South Africa to La Havre, France, with 802 members of the Fifth Battalion, South African Native Labor Corps, assigned to help fight the war on the Western Front. The men were mostly from rural areas of the Pondo Kingdom.

Also on the ship were 22 officers and 33 members of the ship’s crew. The Mendi was under escort by the destroyer HMS Brisk.

On the morning of February 21, while steaming through fog about 12 miles of St. Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight, the Mendi was rammed on the starboard side by the 11,000 ton liner Darro which was traveling at full speed and sending no warning signals.

The Darro backed away from the stricken troopship that was half its size then stood off, making no effort to lower boats or rescue survivors. The Brisk did what it could to conduct rescue operations but the ill-fated Mendi sank within 20 minutes, carrying 616 corpsmen and all 33 members of the crew to the bottom with it.

Those that survived told the strange story of a leader among the black corpsmen, the Rev. Isaac Wauchope, who, in knowing there was no chance for their survival, organized the Africans in what was said to have been a dance of death. Everyone removed their boots and joined together arm in arm to danced and sang in the voices of their tribe on the deck of that sinking ship.

Many of the voices could still be heard after the steamer sank, thrashing about in the cold Atlantic as rescue boats from the destroyer worked desperately to find them in the fog.

The master of the Darro was found to have been at fault for the disaster. His punishment:  he had his license suspended for a year.

Because it was wartime, and because the dead were mostly black Africans, the incident was kept under wraps for many years. Many of the relatives of the dead corpsmen didn’t receive notice of the death of their loved ones, or an apology from the British government.

Members of a British church recently uncovered the scandal during a visit to South Africa and joined tribal chiefs and churches there in a call for the troops to be properly remembered. The matter eventually made its way before Parliament.

In 2002 a stone was erected at Nyandeni, Eastern Cape, in honor of the Africans that died on the decks of the Mendi.