National project set to honour SS Mendi heroes

Rachel and Jim Stapleton lay the wreath watched by Nick Ward and John Fryatt. Picture: Gerald Thompson
Rachel and Jim Stapleton lay the wreath watched by Nick Ward and John Fryatt. Picture: Gerald Thompson

The SS Mendi victims buried in Littlehampton will be honoured by a community project based in London.

As part of The Unremembered, a project to remember the men from the colonies who helped in the First World War, a vigil will be held at Littlehampton Cemetery in Horsham Road, Littlehampton on November 4 at 2pm.

Wreaths will be laid at the graves of Private Jim Mbombiya, Private Smith Segule and Private Simon Linganiso, who were among 616 men of the South African Native Labour Corps who died when the SS Mendi sank in 1917.

Yewande Okuleye, a medical historian and artist from community group Sankofa Calling, is coming down from London to lead the vigil and invited members of the public to come along.

Having recently found out about the graves, she wanted to tell the ‘hidden tales’ of ethnic minority people involved in the war to a national audience: “I felt compelled to do something. We live in this age where we just click instead of act, so for me to get on a train to Littlehampton and pay my respects I feel like I will have made a difference.”

Having set off from Cape Town, the labour corps was on its way to Le Havre in France to help allied forces in the First World War when the SS Mendi collided with a cargo ship and sank.

It was the worst loss of life for South Africa in the First World War.

The bodies of the three privates washed up on Littlehampton Beach and were buried in the town.

At one stage they were going to be exhumed and repatriated in South Africa.

As part of her research, Yewande came across a Gazette article which featured local historian Nick Ward, who has written a book on the tragedy called Troopship Mendi: The Black Titanic. He will be attending the vigil.

He said: “The story of the SS Mendi is certainly getting picked up more and more and it is important it is not forgotten.”

Yewande walked past the three men’s graves on her way to work in the 1990s, when she was a chemist at The Body Shop headquarters.

But it is only since she started Sankofa Calling that she discovered their significance.

She said: “It is like archaeology; you unearth the stories and you want to spread them. I want to continue the work Nick has started and spread the word.”