SS Mendi: Remembering Buffalo City's fallen


In the early hours of 21 February 1917, South Africa suffered its greatest - and most inexplicable - disasters of the Great War. The SS Mendi, carrying 802 South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) troops to the Allied effort in France, was inexplicably rammed by the 11,000-ton British steamer, SS Darro.


The incident - which remains one of the the greatest mysteries of the First World War - all but ripped the Mendi in half, resulting in more than 600 SANLC troops drowning.


Among the casualties were a group of Black servicemen from King William's Town: James Pambili, George Nini, John Clout Nziba, Squire Nodolo (Dodolo), Kleinbooi Petela, July Mdunyelwa, Durward Ngcenge, Style Tetani, Private Anderson Soka and Lance Corporals Robert Madosi and Henry Gqweta.


The heroism and sacrifice of these men - along with other King soldiers who fell during the Great War - are immortalised on the War Memorial in King William's Town.


The following article about the SS Mendi was penned by Amathole Museum historian Stephanie Victor, for the museum's internal publication:


Cordeaux and Farrow's 1921 architectural drawing of King William's Town's memorial to the First World War (1914-18) (pictured below) forms part of the Amathole Museum's collection.


Included on the War Memorial plaques are the names of men from King William's Town who died a century ago during one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century to occur in British waters, resulting in the accidental sinking of the troopship, SS Mendi.


The names of the men are: James Pambili, George Nini, John Clout Nziba, Squire Nodolo (Dodolo), Kleinbooi Petela, July Mdunyelwa, Durward Ngcenge and Style Tetani. Lance Corporals Robert Madosi and Henry Gqweta, as well as Private Anderson Soka from King William's Town, also died during the Mendi disaster, but have been omitted from the memorial.


According to the author, Ian Gleeson, the SS Mendi had left Cape Town on 16 January 1917 with members of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) on board.

After calling at Plymouth, the Mendi was en route to the French port of La Havre. In the early hours of 21 February 1917, approximately 12 miles off St. Catherine's Point on the Isle Of Wight, the 11 000 ton liner, SS Darro, travelling at full speed in thick fog and sounding no fog signals, rammed the Mendi on her starboard side almost cutting her in half.