In the early hours of 21 February 1917, the British steamship SS Mendi was struck by a larger British ship in thick fog and sank in the English Channel. On board were nearly 900 men – mostly black South African men of the South African Native Labour Corps – who were on their way to support the war efforts on the Western Front. More than 600 lives were lost.
One hundred years after the sinking, Graham Scott of Wessex Archaeology, co-author of a new book We Die Like Brothers, shares the story of the tragedy and tells History Extra how the Mendi became a symbol of the fight for social justice and equality.What kind of vessel was the SS Mendi and can you tell us a little about its history?
The steamship Mendi was a cargo liner, built to carry both freight and passengers and sailing on a fixed schedule. Like many of the world’s ships in the first decade of the 20th century, it had been built on the Clyde, then the world’s greatest ship-building centre. Despite being built in Scotland, the Mendi operated out of Liverpool for Elder Dempster, which was then one of the great Liverpool shipping companies. The city dominated much of the trade between Britain and West Africa, a tradition that originated in the commercial links forged by Liverpool merchants during the iniquitous slave trade and one which had enabled British businesses to exploit the continent’s vast resources of raw materials and foodstuffs, whilst at the same time exporting manufactured goods back to British colonies.-read more