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This is the story of the sinking of the SS Mendi during WW1, the bravery of the men on board and the ensuing inquiry conducted by the Board of Trade in London. The story follows the small band of survivors to France where they complete their tour of duty.

The First World War rages in Europe, it is a white man’s war, but when the British government calls for 10 000 black soldiers to be sent to France as a labour force, men from around South Africa volunteer for service. In the foothills of the Drakensberg, Kula Hlongwane, an amaNgwane prince steps forward, followed by a group of his tribesmen. Madondo is ordered to accompany them. For him it is a nightmare from which there is no escape.

When crossing the English Channel on the troopship, the SS Mendi, lights loom out of the thick black fog, then a siren blasts. With no time to avoid the collision, the Mendi is struck a devastating blow on the starboard side where Kula and his men lie sleeping. Within minutes, the Mendi begins to sink.

The book makes use of various historical documents and the transcripts from the inquiry held in London by the Board of Trade to establish causality for the large loss of life. On conclusion of the inquiry, these transcripts were declared ‘secret’ and concealed from view for the next 50 years. Men of the Mendi gives an in depth account of the inquiry and the apparent reason for the cover-up.

 At 5 am on 21 February 1917, in thick fog about 10 nautical miles (19 km) south of St. Catherine's Point on the Isle of Wight, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company cargo ship Darro accidentally rammed Mendi's starboard quarter, breaching her forward hold. Darro was an 11,484 GRT ship, much larger than Mendi, sailing in ballast to Argentina to load meat. Darro survived the collision but Mendi sank, killing 616 South Africans (607 of them black troops) and 30 crew.

Some men were killed outright in the collision; others were trapped below decks. Many others gathered on Mendi's deck as she listed and sank. Oral history records that the men met their fate with great dignity. An interpreter, Isaac Williams Wauchope, who had previously served as a Minister in the Congregational Native Church of Fort Beaufort and Blinkwater, is reported to have calmed the panicked men by raising his arms aloft and crying out in a loud voice:

"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."

The damaged Darro did not stay to assist. But Brisk lowered her boats, whose crews then rescued survivors.

The investigation into the accident led to a formal hearing in summer 1917, held in Caxton Hall, Westminster. It opened on 24 July, sat for five days spread over the next fortnight, and concluded on 8 August. The court found Darro's Master, Henry W Stump, guilty of "having travelled at a dangerously high speed in thick fog, and of having failed to ensure that his ship emitted the necessary fog sound signals." It suspended Stump's licence for a year.

Stump's decision not to help Mendi's survivors has been a source of controversy. One source states that it was because of the risk of attack by enemy submarines. Certainly Darro was vulnerable, both as a large merchant ship and having sustained damage that put her out of action for up to three months. But some historians have suggested that racial prejudice influenced Stump's decision, and others hold that he merely lost his nerve.

Softcover, 320 pages. First published: February 2017