Review: Troopship Mendi – the Black Titanic by Nick Ward

Troopship Mendi – the Black Titanic by Nick Ward (2016) is a book with a difference. It’s clearly self published, the lack of proofing and editing are obvious but more so, it’s a record of a journey of discovery into the story behind the SS Mendi which was sunk on 21 February 1917 off the Isle of Wight, the result of an accident.

Nick takes the reader through his discovery of the first Mendi graves he found and how this led to his search for the story behind the sinking and to find relatives of those who lost loved ones on the ship. The value of the book lies, at least for me, in Nick’s journey – the challenges one faces and how doors can open when all seems at a dead end – literally.

From a content point of view, Nick tells the story of the Mendi as he discovered it, using extensive quotes from reports and enquiries. This works if you have a basic knowledge of the Mendi saga but I’m not sure how easily someone new to Mendi would be able to construct the story.

I struggled with the Titanic link, until Nick explained how this came to be. And then later made links with Lord Buxton, Governor General of South Africa who had been at the Board of Trade when the Titanic went down. In fact, had it not been for that shipping incident, it is unlikely he would have been in South Africa as Governor General. Needless to say, it all helps get the story across to a wider audience.

I have a few issues with the book, not least the huge amounts printed in italics which can be hard on the eyes and the above-mentioned proofing errors. I’m also not sure about the emphasis Nick gives to Wauchope, over whom there are questions as a spiritual leader – to the extent that he was not employed in this capacity but rather as a clerk to the force.¬† The other interesting aspect I found is that Nick doesn’t deal with the myth of Wauchope’s poem which apparently helped keep the men calm. In fact, there is no mention of it at all in the book and the accounts Nick has included of the ship going down suggests the usual panic and chaos at such a time, recognising that the men had been well-drilled and that this played an valuable part in containing what could have been a made rush and free for all. I would be interested to know where and how this myth began. But it doesn’t and shouldn’t retract from the role Wauchope and his family have played in the struggle for equality in South Africa. If only Nick had been able to do the same with others who had lost their lives or even survived.

And, as I usually gripe, we hear so much about the Mendi and the sacrifice the men made to the exclusion of all the other SA Labourers who served and did their bit. But to be fair to Nick, he does touch on this a bit and it was not what he set out to do. What he does and, it’s sad to write, is show how fickle remembrance can be. The memorial garden opened by the Queen and Nelson Mandela is now, or was at the time of his writing, in disrepair. Government ministers promised things would be done and when it came to the crunch, fell silent. Those of us with African backgrounds¬† and who have spent time in Africa have all experienced this but it doesn’t make it right.¬† Sad to say, the Mendi continues as with Delville Wood to be a political pawn in South Africa’s World War 1 remembrance and this is something Nick brings home, even if he does so sub-consciously.

This is a worthwhile read on many levels and I’m sure I’ll be referring back to it on occasion – but I leave one plea. Let the men rest in peace where they lie – most who gave their lives in World War 1 rest in far flung places – Rather, let’s remember and honour them and what they, and their fellow SANLC, undertook to do to help make the world a better place.

The SA Heritage portal reviewed the book in 2017.

Aragon vs Mendi: two carrier ships

I have written before on how I could equate the deaths on the SS Aragon with those of the SS Mendi. Transcribing the Pike Report prompted this posting.

As awful as the sinking of the Mendi was – an accident, the deaths of the more than 120 South African Native Labourers who gave up on life and who saw no future in continuing to live is a sad indictment on those tasked with their well-being. What makes it worse, is that their suffering was long drawn out, months of labour, lack of sleep and inappropriate diet, exaccerbated by the tropical conditions in which they found themselves. Later that same year, 30 December 1917, the Aragon was sunk with the loss of 610 lives.

Yes, the Mendi saw 600+ lives lost in one go, the Aragon far fewer over a a few days, but for each of the families concerned, the loss of life – Mendi or Aragon – was a huge blow: an income supplier, loved and cherished – father, son, brother, friend.

The impact on recruiting labour in South Africa was tangible. The loss of the Mendi lives saw the South African government stop recruiting for labour to serve on the Western Front. The loss of the Aragon lives was more subtle: men didn’t enlist and found excuses not to.

Until recently, the detail of the Aragon losses have been limited, if one is lucky, to a sentence or two in an historical narrative. However, the opening up of the Pike Report allows us a medical insight into the deaths, and the decisions – right or wrong – that doctors, officers and ships’ captains made in tring to ease the situation in which the men found themselves.

This is, for me, a heart-moving story of neglect through ignorance, and for some contempt on the one hand and of concern and care for humankind on the other. In the same way the survivors of the Mendi, both of the ship itself and of the Darro, had to live with their guilt and self-loathing of not being able to do more, so did the survivors of the Aragon.

Note: I’ve purposefully kept numbers approximate as records seem to differ in detail.