Remembering and honouring the SS Mendi victims

The South African Legion held a parade for the SS Mendi at the Moths Battle Axe Shellhole on Sunday, in honour of the South African troops who lost their lives on February 1917.

SHARING HISTORY: SA Legion member Ivo Chunnet recalled the story of the SS Mendi at a parade at the Moth hall on Sunday Picture: NTOMBI MSUTU

The hall was full of people who wanted to hear the history and honour the fallen.

Among those present at the parade were Port Alfred High School pupils, invited so that the youth get to know about the rich history of South Africa.

The parade was opened with a prayer of thanksgiving by Des Spencely, who relayed his message from Matthew 21:30-31 – the parable of the two sons who were sent on a task by their father. One son was good and the other was a bad son.

“I don’t know how we feel today, but I saw that the verse as suitable because in the SS Mendi story there were two captains – one that was a good captain and the other a bad captain who cost about 660 men their lives. Today we are here to honour those good men,” Spenceley said.

The prayer and message were followed by the hymn called Will Your Anchor Hold, and after that SA Legion member Ivo Chunnett gave a brief history of what exactly happened with the SS Mendi.

Reading an excerpt from South African History Online, he said: “The sinking of the SS Mendi was caused by the reckless actions of the captain of the SS Darro. It remains the greatest wartime maritime disaster ever suffered in South Africa.

“Wartime ships ran dark or with low lights and with inclement weather her visibility was greatly reduced,” he said.

“It was at 5am on February 21 1917 that the SS Darro, a far larger ship, which was not only running with low lights but not blowing her horn to alert others of her presence, and at full speed hit the SS Mendi straight down on the starboard side of the ship.

“The initial collision killed many. A number of lifeboats were rendered unusable due to the speed at which the she heeled over. The ship began to sink. SS Darro did not even pause to assist but rather continued onward. This action saw Captain Stump of the SS Darro in an investigation and having his licence suspended for a year,” Chunnet said.

Interpreter and minister Isaac Williams Wauchope is on record as giving a final sermon to the men facing their death: “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do…you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers…Swazis, Pondos, Basotho…so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.”

After the brief history people went outside to place their wreaths, and paid tribute to the fallen soldiers. The flag was flown at half-mast and after that Nkosi Sikelela iAfrika was sung, then the parade was over.

Mayor Phindile Faxi was invited but did not attend.


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