Book Review – ‘We Die Like Brothers: The sinking of the SS ‘Mendi’’ by Clifford J. Pereira
The SS Mendi sank off the Isle of Wight in 1917, with the loss of over 600 South African passengers.
The book underlines one of a number of instances where the courage and determination of men from the empire lost their lives through a mixture of incompetency and accident. However, it is the aspirations for freedom and equality by the majority of those men that placed them in the path of death. The decades of unrecognition of their ultimate sacrifice and the continued injustice for their surviving kin in South Africa really makes for a shocking story in itself. The book does cover the multinational labour corps at the Western Front, of which the South African Native Labour Corps were part, and the book is timely as one hundred years after the war, the stories of the Caribbean, Chinese, Indian and Egyptian corps and crew are finally breaking silence.
From a naval perspective the book also brings into question the inability of some troopships to have appropriate safety procedures and equipment during the war. Of course, the multiethnic nature of the crew is also covered, and echoes the multi-ethnic crew in the ANZAC convoys and Royal Navy vessels of the Indian Ocean whose narratives are also largely untold. The reviewer found the book more interesting, after finding through naval logs and archives that his own ancestor in the Royal Navy was at Lagos on 26 May 1916 when the SS Mendi called there to pick up the West African troops bound for East Africa. The restrictions placed on non-white crew coming ashore at South Africa, Canada and Australia during the First World War, such as the reviewer’s South Asian ancestor, contrasts uncomfortably with the contribution of the story of the Labour Corps going to sea that is highlighted in this book.
It is the connection between this one wreck out of thousands of First World War wrecks and the story of the hundreds of men from southern Africa who met their deaths on their way to defend Britain that makes for interesting reading. Thirty years after the sinking, the wreck of the SS Mendi was found, and started to give up its story in salvaged objects and this marine archaeology has also been given attention in the book.
These focused memories rightly stand to honour the wider contribution of the empire and occupy an important space in the emerging post-war identity of subsequent Commonwealth countries. Though the final curtain of the SS Mendi story does not fall on a terrestrial battlefield, it nevertheless performs the same function of memory in South Africa as Vimy Ridge does for Canadians. In this respect this book very clearly narrates this emergence of a truly ethnically diverse South African memory of the First World War.
The sinking of SS Mendi was largely forgotten outside South Africa until 1995, and even then remembered almost as a myth by a segment of the population. What John Gribble and Graham Scott have managed with concise research, wonderful writing and excellent visuals is to make this important hidden history of the First World War story come alive and take its appropriate place within the global narrative.