Blue Flower

 

The Unremembered Narrator 2

The Corps had been recruited following the dreadful losses of the Battle of the
Somme. The British Army needed an army of workers to support this epic war,
and in 1916 she turned to allies and the Empire. The South African government
agreed to recruit thousands of men on the strict condition that the men lived in
‘closed compounds’ and worked in isolation from all other soldiers and civilians on
the Western Front. Although some black South Africans were sceptical, others
were inspired by an opportunity to see the world, to take their place at the
international table. These are the words of Labour Corps volunteer, Chief Stimela
Jason Jingoes’:

Reader 1

The present war is a world war. Every nation must take part in it. Even we Bantu
ought to play our part in this war... Without you, your white comrades cannot do
anything because they cannot fight and provide labour at the same time... Please
everyone who loves his country and respects the British government, join this war
without hesitation. Forward! Forward!

The Unremembered SANLC Archive Script February 2017, Portsmouth 2

The Unremembered Narrator 1

21 thousand men were passed as fit to travel to France. The SS Mendi was one of
the first troop carriers to leave Cape Town for France on 17 January 1916.
When the fog came down on 21st February – that was after five weeks at sea –
the Mendi was within the final hours of her journey.
Shortly before dawn, the troop carrier was struck by another ship, the SS Darro.
The Mendi sank rapidly. 882 men were on board; 616 died.
The Darro did little to assist; those who survived could thank the crew of the
Royal Navy escort, HMS Brisk.
Over time the story of the SS Mendi gained the status of legend. Native Labour
Corps interpreter, the minister Rev Isaac Wauchope Dyobha is said to have called
out to the panicking men.

Reader 2

Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what
you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers,
we are drilling the drill of death.
I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like
brothers.
We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us
leave our weapons at our homes, our voices are left with our bodies.

The Unremembered SANLC Archive Script February 2017, Portsmouth 3

The Unremembered Narrator 2

Reverend Wauchope led the men in song, with perhaps one hundred men
removing their boots to perform a ‘death dance’ as the deck titled and the ship
sank. They sang the Xhosa hymn “Lizalis’ idinga lakho”

Reader 3

It translates like this:
Fulfil your promise, Faithful God
All races, all nations must be saved.
Prevail our God
Happiness can only come through you
Because of our struggles, the world is damaged.
Look at our world; Forgive our sins.
Do not send your wrath, To kill the children.
Prevent us, God, from disobeying
The teachings of your Word
Revive us: We can hear your Truth.

The Unremembered SANLC Archive Script February 2017, Portsmouth 4

The Unremembered Narrator 1

Although hundreds survived, there is no eyewitness account which backs up this
compelling story.
Perhaps it arose from the work of Xhosa poet S.E.K. Mqhayi. Mqhayi - who was a
close friend of Rev Dyobha’s family – wrote about the Labour Corps for almost
twenty years. Whether myth or history, Mqhayi honours the courage of the
Native Labour Corps and the significance of their sacrifice.
[OPTION: Perform the song – see Unremembered song sheet]

The Unremembered Narrator 2

Aside from the terrible tragedy of the SS Mendi, most of South African volunteers
arrived safely in France and made a major contribution to the war effort.
Some companies laid and repaired railways, others worked in the quarries and
forests.
The majority were employed as stevedores in the docks of Le Havre, Rouen and
Dieppe where they unloaded ammunition, timber and food supplies. This is how
military chaplain Reverend Keable described them at work
The Unremembered SANLC Archive Script February 2017, Portsmouth 5

Reader 4

They worked in a “great gaunt enormous shed of iron and steel. Trains run into
these and are dwarfed to insignificance.
Ships of three or four thousand tonnes stretch in a line outside....
As fast as the stores are built up into monstrous heaps in the hangar, those heaps
are eaten away on the other side by boys who load the stuff into railway trucks -
night and day, week in and week out.”

The Unremembered Narrator 1

Their work in the docks drew high praise, and on 10 July 1917 George V himself,
inspected and addressed the Native Labour Corps in France. Two days later, ML
Posholi one of the Labour Corps wrote:

Reader 5

We saw him, George V, our king, with our own eyes... To us it is a dream,
something to wonder at. We are indeed in the midst of great wonders because
we personally heard that we blacks too are British subjects, children of the father
of the great Nation, trusted ones and helpers, and that we are cared for and loved.

The Unremembered Narrator 2

According to their government’s requirements, their camps were surrounded by
barbed wire with armed guards. It was the cause of great resentment, sometimes
with tragic consequences as when a man was arrested for washing his clothes
outside the compound. Protests escalated and when a group broke out of the
compound the guards opened fire. Four were killed and eleven wounded.

The Unremembered SANLC Archive Script February 2017, Portsmouth 6

The Unremembered Narrator 1

The Native Labour Corps was disbanded when the segregation broke down. They
returned to South Africa during 1918 and brought with them the Spanish Flu,
which resulted in the loss of half a million lives.
No service medals were issued by the South African government and the King’s
medal was cancelled for the South African Native Labour Corps. These are words
of Native Labour Corps recruit A.K. Xabanisa:

Reader 6

I am just like a stone which after killing a bird nobody bothers about, no one cares
to see where it falls.

The Unremembered Narrators 1 and 2

Remember the Unremembered for the Labour Corps Centenary in 2017.
Our thanks to all our readers.
Pronunciation Guide
Xhosa – should be pronounced with a ‘click * ’ at the start " *-osa "
Poet Mqhayi – Poet Mqhayi’s name can pronounced "M-khay-ee"
Rev Isaac Wauchope Dyobha – pronounced "Wa-cho-pay Dy-oh-bha"
The Unremembered project would like to thank Professor Albert Grundlingh for his research into the history
of the South African Native Labour Corps upon which much of this script is based.