I’m honoured to have been asked to be an advocate for NTS’s production of Dancing the Death Drill. In the lead up to the start of the production, my role is to tell you something about the SS Mendi and of the men who were onboard.
So why have they asked me? Well, I’m a British marine archaeologist and for the past two decades I’ve worked for the heritage charity Wessex Archaeology. Part of my job is to study historic ship and aircraft wrecks in the seas around Britain. Much of this work is for government heritage agencies such as Historic England and Historic Environment Scotland. I help them understand and protect the amazing heritage that lies off our coast. I also work for those helping to create a low carbon economy, the builders of wind farms, and those helping to ensure that our ports and harbours meet our needs in the 21st century. My role for them is to help ensure that their work does as little damage to the historic environment around us as possible. I’ve investigated and helped to protect the wrecks of ships of the Royal Navy, from the time of English Civil Wars to the Second World War. I’ve investigated their ‘opposition’, including the wrecks of German U-boats that terrorised the British coast during the 1914-18 First World War. Not all of the ships I’ve investigated have been wrecked – I’ve also had the privilege to work ‘behind the scenes’ helping the National Museum of the Royal Navy record preserved historic ships in their care. On ships such as Nelson’s Victory, now the oldest commissioned warship in the world, I’ve done work to help ensure that visitors get the best possible information about their history and importance. I also study historic aircraft wrecks, such as the German Luftwaffe Junkers 88 shot down in 1943 by the RAF ace, Norwegian film star and ski champion and all-round hero Marius Eriksen, and found during dredging work for London’s new port, London Gateway.
But what really gets me up in the morning are shipwrecks whose stories have the power to say something important to us about contemporary issues, about things that affect our lives today. That’s why when, in 2006, a South African colleague told me about a First World War shipwreck off the Isle of Wight called the Mendi, I realised that I had found something really special. Little did I know that this interest was eventually to lead me to meeting the man who is now South Africa’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa.
As the troopship Mendi sank off the Isle of Wight in the early hours of the 21st February, 101 years ago, hundreds of men were forced to jump into the freezing waters of the English Channel. In thick fog rescuers from the Mendi’s Royal Navy escort HMS Brisk struggled to find them and most succumbed to hypothermia and drowned. The much larger ship that had collided with the Mendi, the Darro, failed to help in the rescue and this undoubtedly contributing to the scale of the losses.
Many troopships were sunk in the terrible First World War, with great and tragic loss of life. What, therefore, makes the Mendi so special you may be thinking? Well, the passengers onboard the Mendi that night were not troops, they were some of the unsung heroes of the First World War, men of the Foreign Labour Corps. The First World War was a truly global conflict and men and women from all over its Empire and Dominions fought and worked for the British and its allies.
Armies need huge quantities of supplies to fight effectively. Without people to move these supplies, build roads and railways, unload ships, quarry stone, cut timber and work in the hospitals, the British armies on the Western Front, in the Middle East and in Africa would have quickly lost the war. Short of men, Britain therefore turned to the many peoples of its empire. The men onboard the Mendi were black South Africans and the 20,000 strong South African Native Labour Corps, together with the Egyptian, Chinese, West Indian and other Labour Corps worked and died with great distinction on the Western Front and elsewhere. Their work underpinned the war effort. For many years the work that these men did has gone under the radar and there is little mention of them in histories of the war. However, in recent years our awareness of their vital work and sacrifice has been growing and, in my view, the 1914-18 centenary commemorations mark the first time in Britain this is being fully recognised. Hand in hand with this has come a new awareness of just how much of a world war the so-called ‘Great War’ was – and not before time.
There is another reason that makes the men of the Mendi so special and it is the impact of the tragedy upon the subsequent history of South Africa. There can be very few shipwrecks that have ultimately contributed to the political life of a nation, but today the story of the Mendi is a symbol of equality and social justice in the ‘Rainbow Nation’. This was not always so. In 1917 the disaster was quickly forgotten by the young country’s white government, anxious not to focus on the contribution made to the war effort by a resentful black majority. However, memory of the Mendi disaster and of the men of the South African Labour Corps was preserved in black communities all over South Africa. Eventually, commemorations of the disaster became a focus for political activism and for resistance to white minority rule. The loss of the Mendi can be said to have ultimately contributed to the end of Apartheid.
But how that happened is something for a future blog…
A Nuffield Southampton Theatres and Isango Ensemble co-production co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, Repons Foundation, Nuffield Southampton Theatres.
The world première of
SS MENDI: DANCING THE DEATH DRILL
Based on a book by Fred Khumalo. Adapted by Isango Ensemble & Gbolahan Obisesan. Music by Isango Ensemble & Mandisi Dyantyis. Directed by Mark Dornford-May.
Friday 29th June - Saturday 14th July
At NST City
Image courtesy of Historic England and Wessex Archaeology