SS Mendi Memorial
Lorenzo NASSIMBENE: Artist
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The SS Mendi, a World War 1 troopship carrying members of the South African Native Labour Contingent to the front in Europe, was tragically sunk in the English Channel in February 1917. Over 600 men lost their lives in the icy waters making it South Africa’s largest maritime tragedy to date. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the tragedy the City of Johannesburg decided to upgrade and expand its existing memorial, a simple wall listing the names of those who had lost their lives. The making of a memorial is never a simple act of concretising memory or honouring lost lives. The making of a memorial is always a political and emotionally charged act. The creation of the new SS Mendi memorial attempts to navigate this difficult terrain. The memorial is sited at a high point in Avalon Cemetery, one of the largest graveyards in South Africa. From here it has sweeping 180 degree views south across the sea of graves. The first decision when designing the new memorial was to retain and honour the existing memorial wall as a sign of respect to both it and its creators. It is not a grand construction, built by community members in the 1990s out of a combination of face brick and sandstone blocks. This memorial was opened in 1995 by President Mandela and Queen Elizabeth II. The new memorial, in turn, takes its material language from the existing. A palette of face brick, honed granite and off shutter concrete are used. While common construction materials, they were chosen because of their contextual appropriateness and durability. In addition to this their intentionally intricate use, especially in the integrated narrative artwork, required hands on, precise and labour intensive construction. This made the act of building the memorial in itself a form of homage. Conceptually the memorial is seen as a physical and spatial experience rather than the traditional memorial as object. While the memorial can be seen as a hypothetical ship navigating the landscape of the cemetery, it is designed to be a space that is inhabited and used. The memorial is made up of a large raised platform connecting the original memorial wall with new brickwork panels and niches housing built in seating and display panels explaining the often forgotten history of the South Africa Native Labour Contingent as well as the SS Mendi. This is topped by a slender off shutter concrete pergola. The pergola creates a sense of enclosure and separation for the visitor to the monument while also framing and focusing views of the cemetery. The use and occupation of the memorial, be it for commemorative functions, school visits or as a backdrop to funeral services allows it to become a living site of memory, interpreted and reimagined by its users.
SS MENDI MEMORIAL – PROJECT TEAM DETAILS
ARCHITECTS – Mayat Hart Architects
TEXT FROM THE PLAQUES ON THE MEMORIAL
THE SS MENDI
The SS Mendi, a cargo ship, was used as a troop ship during the First World War. On the 25th of January 1917 the ship left Cape Town and sailed to Plymouth, England, before setting sail for Le Havre in France. Escorted by the battle ship HMS Brisk the Mendi was transporting 803 officers and men of the Fifth Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps.
Shortly before 5 am on foggy 21 February 1917, the SS Mendi was accidentally rammed into by a larger steamer, The Darro off the Isle of Wight. The Darro was a mail ship, twice the size of the Mendi and was sailing at full speed. Water flooded into the hold where many men were asleep and the ship tipped to one side and sank within twenty five minutes. Most of the men could not swim and had to jump into the icy cold water. 649 men died, most of them members of the South African Native Labour Corps.
THE MENDI LEGACY
The South African Government found out about the tragedy three days after the event by telegram. The loss of the Mendi was announced on 9 March 1917. Local magistrates called meetings to share the news with Chiefs and Headmen. Memorial services across South Africa were held and communities mourned the loss of their sons, husbands, brothers and friends.
The SS Mendi sank with little recognition outside South Africa. The South African Government had decided that black members of the South African Native Labour Contingent would not receive medals for their service in the War. However the story has been remembered over generations. The ship, was rediscovered in 1974, and the men that were lost have been recognised through memorials in South Africa and Britain. The site of the shipwreck is now protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act. This means that divers may still visit it but it is an offence to damage it or remove artefacts from it.
THE FIRST WORLD WAR
The First World War was a global war which originated in Europe. It began in 1914, with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and lasted until 1918. The war included all the world’s economic powers who were grouped into two opposing alliances. The Central Powers, made up of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire and fought against the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan and the United states. Britain was supported by the British Empire including Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, the Caribbean and parts of Africa. Over 16 Million people died during the war making it one of the deadliest conflicts in history. This was exacerbated by new military technology and trench warfare. The Allied Powers claimed victory but it resulted in major political changes in many of the nations involved and unresolved conflicts which contributed to the start of the Second World War.
THE SOUTH AFRICAN NATIVE LABOUR CORPS
The South African Native Labour Corps were formed to support Britain during the First World War. They were a non-combatant force and were not trained to fight. This was because the South African government at the time was concerned that the black troops might use their military training at home against the oppressive laws of the state when the war was over. Rather they supported the British army by building roads, driving, felling trees and moving materials.
Despite this many South African men however did sign up. They felt that this would demonstrate their loyalty to Britain and ultimately give them a voice in decisions when they returned home from the war. The men were paid for their work but it was less than what was paid to white men serving in the British Army. Over 70 000 men formed the South African Native Labour Corps, deployed first to German South West Africa and then in France.
(Brendan Hart, February 2022)
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