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JOHANNESBURG – It was a cataclysmic loss among many during World War I. On the foggy early morning of Feb. 21, 1917, in the channel between Britain and France, a British steamship accidentally rammed the smaller SS Mendi, sinking the vessel in about 20 minutes and killing more than 600 southern African troops on board, the vast majority of them black.
The deaths in the service of Britain's colonial empire form a complex narrative in modern South Africa, where the men are viewed as heroes but also as pawns, assigned to digging and other non-combat tasks and denied the right to carry weapons, in a distant war in which they had no meaningful stake.
On the disaster's centenary on Tuesday, South Africa will commemorate the Mendi, many of whose occupants may have been killed in the impact while others drowned or died of exposure in the cold waters. President Jacob Zuma will lay a wreath in the port city of Durban and, nearly 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) away, a South African military vessel carrying descendants of the dead will hold a ceremony in waters over the wreck.
The Mendi was not always a source of official pride in a country that endured white minority domination until the first all-race elections in 1994. During apartheid, the story was passed down through black oral tradition, but was not included in school curricula set by South Africa's white rulers, said Fred Khumalo, author of "Dancing the Death Drill," a novel about the disaster.
"It's a huge gap in our history," said Khumalo, adding that he hopes growing popular interest in the Mendi will "bring up other hidden narratives because our history is so rich and diverse."
The title of Khumalo's novel comes from an unconfirmed anecdote, described by some as a legend, about Rev. Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, a South African pastor who told doomed men on the sinking ship that they would "die like brothers" and led them in a barefoot dance before death.
Some 30 crewmembers, nine white officers and 607 members of the South African Native Labour Corps died, out of more than 900 people on board, according to official accounts. Many bodies were not recovered. The troops had been on their way to join the war effort in France.
Citing witnesses, an official report at the time said there was no confusion or shouting on the Mendi after the collision, but a lot of shouting in the water and "cries of distress" that were louder than the whistle of a military escort vessel that rescued some survivors.
Henry Winchester Stump, the captain of the SS Darro, which struck the Mendi, had his license suspended for a year because he did not reduce speed or sound a whistle in the fog and because of a failure "without reasonable cause" to send boats to assess damage and try to help survivors, according to the report.
Tides and poor visibility make it difficult to explore the Mendi wreck, which lies about 40 meters (130 feet) below the surface near the Isle of Wight, said John Gribble, a South African marine archaeologist. Divers "badly plundered" the Mendi after discovering it in the 1970s and it has decayed rapidly in the last few decades, he said.
In March 1917, the white-run parliament of the Union of South Africa, then a British imperial dominion, paid tribute to the dead. Yet the vessel sank four years after passage of a South African law that stripped the black majority of most its land rights, and generations of institutionalized racism were yet to come.
Last week, Victoria Wallace, director general of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, spoke about the Mendi's troops at a ceremony in Portsmouth, Britain.
"Who knows what these men thought they were heading for when they embarked," she said. "I know many people have questioned whether they genuinely came of their own free will, and whether they or their families were ever adequately compensated. The answer is almost certainly not."
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