The Legend of the Death Dance

As the SS Mendi rapidly began to sink, Revd. Isaac Wauchope Dyobha called out to the men still on board the SS Mendi:

"Be quite and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place 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 death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers... Swazis, Pondos, Basothos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies."

And the men took off their boots and stomped the death dance on the deck of the ship as she was going down in the icy waters of the English Channel.

This is truly a valiant act these men did in the time of panic. It stirs up emotions in us, who can only imagine the horror of what it must have been like for them.

Though many people believe the death dance did happen, there are various factors to take into consideration whether it could actually have happened:

  • The SS Mendi sank rapidly, within 20-25 minutes. She immediately listed so far to starboard bow that the port side lifeboats could not be launched, and in the final moments swung over to port, so much so that the stern lifted out of the water. The deck would have been too slanted for a person to stand properly. One officer returning from his cabin after fetching his lifebelt, walked up the edges of the stairs as they were almost horizontal, and upon reaching the top, he could slide down the railing.
  • Of those who survived, none had any recollection of this ever happening. Even though the troops quietly fell into their emergency stations as they were drilled to do, many were stricken by panic, fear and shock. Men tried to get off the ship as quickly as possible, and those who were too scared of the water were urged on by their officers and NCO's.
  • The earliest account of the death dance can only be found in 1941, 24 years later.
  • Several languages were spoken on board the SS Mendi and interpreters were used to communicate to the men. Even though Rev. Isaac Wauchope Dyobha was an interpreter, communicating with the various languages in his speech seems disjointed.

Taken those aspects into consideration, some factors may support the legend:

  • The SS Mendi was 370 feet (113 meters) in length, about the same as a football field, and was divided by the midships deck. It was dark and foggy, visibility negligible. Most individuals were concerned only with their own fears and their one hope of survival. In these circumstances it seems feasible that the incident could have occurred and that many of the survivors were unaware of it.
  • Revd. Dyobha was signed on as an interpreter and as such would have been billeted with the medical orderlies and sick near the hospital. There is an account that the doors to the interior was jammed and that the men were trapped inside. Perhaps, if Dyobha made such an address of sorts, it could have been made in the medical quarters.
  • Oral tradition in Africa is strong and it seems inconceivable that the story like this could have arisen without any foundation at all, though it is understandable that it could have been embroidered subsequently to make sense of the tragedy.

Whether the death dance actually occurred or not, it is certain that these men, as the SS Mendi sunk, saved each other by putting their own lives in danger. Bravery beyond what we can imagine today. These men were heroes.