John Gribble and Graham Scott
Historic England, £17.99
Review Antony Firth
Most seagoing voyages are lost to time, leaving hardly a trace on the ever-moving oceans. Even the documentary records of a successful voyage will barely raise a ripple among the archives. This would also have been true of the steamship Mendi – finally crossing the English Channel in February 1917 on its voyage from South Africa – if the captain of the Darro had shown more prudence by slowing his ship in thick fog. Instead, the Darro collided with the Mendi with deadly force. Nor did the Darro come to the Mendi’s aid, with the result that at least 646 people died in the bitterly cold waters. Over 600 of those who perished were black members of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC).
Gribble and Scott detail the tragedy in this powerful book, but they also take the reader on a much broader exploration of the history encapsulated in the wreck of the Mendi. Of many strands, the most striking is the story of the SANLC and the other foreign labour corps that sustained Britain’s forces on the Western Front. Gribble and Scott show how the SANLC was entwined in the politics of South Africa and Great Britain, but also of black South Africans struggling for rights and representation. They show how the story of the Mendi continued to reverberate through to the end of apartheid and into today’s South Africa.
For all the complexity of the subjects it covers, the book is accessible and clearly structured. Historic images are well reproduced and the overall quality of production is very high. Indeed, the style is deceptively straightforward in quickly covering a great deal of detail, all supported with notes and references.
This book adeptly demonstrates that the SS Mendi is one of the most extraordinary wrecks in UK waters. Nothing can offset the tragedy of all those who died a century ago, but Gribble and Scott help ensure that they, and all they represent, will be remembered. I strongly recommend this book.
This review was published in CA 332.