Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Sinking of the Mendi

A ga ya re mokgosi odule moseja ole,

Go le thata, tau tse ditonadi lotlhaganye:

Go le thata ya lentswe ka banna ba se bale,

Go bifile, ka ditlhaka ditshelepeganye,

Ga bolola mophato wa mautlwakgosi mono.

Koloi ya metsi Mendi, e sale e hulara.

Many years ago we were reading the above poem written by Moabi Kitchen. It was something we had internalised and as young primary pupils we could easily recite it stanza by stanza. The reason why this poem was penned was for the fact that Batswana men were part of the tragedy.

The Mendi was a troopship bearing the flag of the United Kingdom and in 1917, a year before the conclusion of the First World War, this ship set sail from the South African port of Cape Town with human cargo.

This ship set sail toward West Africa and its final stop was Sierra Leone. This country has one of its ethnic groups with the name Mendi. It was there that the ship took its last load before taking its course toward France.

I have taken keen interest in finding out more information on why the ship was given this particular name. It is so ironic that the last stop for the ship was Sierra Leone and most probably it carried on it some of the Mendi people when it sank.

As part of my research on the make-up of the victims of this accident, I set out to collaborate with one of the journalists in Sierra Leone. Steven Buckarie who works for a local radio station in Freetown was my contact person over there. Unfortunately this collaboration has not yielded much results. There is not much information regarding the citizens of that country that were on board.

According to information gleaned from some archives, there were eight citizens of Bechuanaland Protectorate. It is very critical to investigate the details regarding the list of eight. At the time of the emergence of war, the borders of this country went as far as Taung in South Africa. The administrative capital of Bechuanaland Protectorate was Vryburg.

I have failed in my efforts to establish the names of the eight Batswana that perished in the accidents. I did not want to waste my time trying to ask the National Archives in Gaborone because in the first place they have no knowledge of the First World War.

Moabi Kitchen wrote the poem under certain influence and it is not clear what ignited this in him. Sandy Grant writes that in the 1960s when he arrived in Gaborone, he was welcomed by Moabi Kitchen and his wife Alice.

The poet must have come across certain families that had lost their loved ones in the tragic accident. He was writing this with a lot of attachment to the events leading to the sinking of the Mendi. 

February is regarded as Black History month in America and it is ironic that the sinking of the Mendi occurred on February 21st. This is a date we should be observing because we have this important event in the military history of Botswana.

On that fateful night, the troopship the Mendi collided with the Darro, this was a cargo ship which was also traversing the English Channel. This collision came with a great loss of life. Several nations had their men in that ship in that fogy morning. There was very little chance of survival.

When the ship left port at Cape Town there were 823 men on board and these were troops of the 5th Battalion. They were derived from the South African Labour Corps and were destined for France where they were going to serve in many different roles.

Here is the breakdown of the total number of men in this ship. Two hundred and eighty seven were from the Transvaal, 139 from the Eastern Cape, 87 from Natal and the rest came from the Northern Cape, the Orange Free State, Basutoland, Swaziland, Bechuanaland, Rhodesia and South West Africa. There were a few white non-commissioned officers on board this ship.

Despite the loss of eight of our men, Botswana has never commemorated this loss at sea. It is vital that as a nation we should not forget our history. The foundation was already laid by Moabi Kitchen in his famous poem and for a long time there was never any follow up.

But we are slowly awaking from our slumber as a nation. This week the nation remembered its fallen heroes. The events took place at various places around the country including Lesoma in the Chobe. The main event occurred at the Three Dikgosi Monument where the old and the present BDF top brass gathered.

Surely there is a lot of information out there regarding the Mendi and in particular the list of the eight Batswana men who perished in that accident. But we seem to be living in total oblivion. There are several locations in South Africa where the Mendi is commemorated. 

The one monument that I personally saw is found at Simons Town. This is the SA Navy HQ. They have set up a small statue there in remembrance of their fallen heroes. One of their frigates is named SAS Mendi. In 2016, the South African Heritage Resource Agency has been instrumental in helping in the awareness of the Mendi and this has resulted in the creation of several monuments around the country.

There is one memorial in Mowbray in the lower campus of the University of Cape Town. It is well kept and the generations to follow will continue to understand the ordeal that these men went through.

Further to this, there are people in the South African military who have been identified and are in the genealogy of the fallen heroes. These great grandchildren are always at the forefront when the sinking of the Mendi is commemorated.

I am not playing the blame game here, but if I may ask; what are our government archivists doing if we find ourselves as a position where not even the names of the eight are known?  

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