Black Valour: The South African Native Labour Contingent, 1916-1918 and the sinking of Mendi
In the misty early morning of 17 February 1917 a crowded troopship was making its cautious way to France. Suddenly, another vessel loomed up out of the fog, and rammed the troopship which quickly sank into the icy waters of the English Channel. The stricken ship was the Mendi and the troops were black South Africans. Over 600 men lost their lives making this one of South Africa's greatest military disasters.
This is the first detailed historical account of the tragedy. The author has made extensive use of personal records and other sources to reconstruct the last voyage of the Mendi, to describe the sinking and to examine the many puzzling questions associated with the incident. Why, for example, was the Darro steaming so fast? Why did her captain take no steps to rescue survivors? Is there any truth in the legend that the men trapped on the deck of the Mendi performed a death-defying dance as the ship went down?
The sinking of the Mendi is the central episode in Black Valour. The rest of the book presents a full picture of the South African Native Labour Contingent, recruied in 1916 and 1917 to support the Allied armies in France. Though disappointed that they were not allowed to bear arms, more than 20,000 men volunteered for service overseas. The highly readable narrative with numerous quotations from reminiscences and letters provides a lively and rounded picture of life in the Labour Contingent, and adds significantly to the growing literature on the black experience of war.