Thursday, 21 February 2019

Remembering the Members of the South African Labour Corps who lost their lives in the sinking of the S.S. "Mendi" on 21st February 1917

With many thanks to David Walker who has a Facebook page commemorating the South Africans who died in the First World War for bringing Samuel Mqhayi to my attention.

The Steam Ship 'Mendi' was on her way to France from South Africa carrying members of the South African Labour Corps. The "Mendi" collided in thick fog at 5 a.m. on the morning of 21st February 1917 with the Royal Mail Packet Company's cargo ship  SS “Darro'.  The 'Mendi', which was the smaller of the two ships, rapidly sank with the loss of the lives of 616 South Africans and 30 members of the ship’s crew.

The South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) was a force of workers formed in 1916 in response to a British request for workers at French ports. About 25,000 South Africans joined the Corps.  Although members of the Corps did not fight, their contribution to the war effort was extremely important.  The photograph shows King George V inspecting members of the SANLC in France.

From a translation of the Poem “Sinking of the Mendi” by Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi

Yes, this thing flows as a normal thing from that.
The thing we know is not scared of that;
We say, things have happened as they should have,
Within our brains we say: it should have been so;
If it hadn’t been so, nothing would have come right.
You see Sotase, things came right when the Mendi sank!
Our blood on that ship turned things around,
It served to make us known through the world!

See the rest of the poem here:

Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi was born on 1st December 1875 in Gqumashe in Alice, Transkei, Cape Province, South Africa.  His family were Christians.  Samuel, whose mother tongue was Xhosa, trained to become a teacher in Lovedale and worked on the translation of the Bible into Xhosa.  He also worked as a journalist on Xhosa newspapers, as well as publishing novels and poems. Nelson Mandela considered Samuel to be a poet Laureate of the African people and heard him recite his poetry.  Samuel died in 1945.

The Xhosa language is one of the official languages of South Africa and is a tonal language, written with a Latin alphabet. It is a ‘click’ language, the word ‘Xhosa’ starts with a click.
In the western world, the singer Miriam Makeba (Zenzile Miriam Makeba 1932 – 2008) made the Xhosa language famous when she released a recording of the song “Pata Pata” in 1957. “Pata Pata” (meaning ‘touch touch’ in English) was written by Dorothy Masuka.   Miriam’s “Click Song”, the name given to the song Qongqothwane (in English “knock-knock beetle), which is sung at weddings to bring good luck, is another example of a song in Xhosa. 

Here is a link to Samuel's poem about the sinking of the S.S. "Mendi" - a ship carrying members of the South African Labour Corps to the Western Front which sank off the Isle of Wight with great loss of life

Another of Samuel's poems can be seen here:

`Xhosa Poets and Poetry” by Jeff Opland, published by David Philip Publishers (Pty.) Ltd., Clarement, South Africa in 1998