NEWSLETTER NO. 343
Fellow member Hillary Graham, speaking to the Society for the first time, gave the DDH talk on The Sinking of the Troopship Mendi, approaching the subject from an unusual perspective of poetry and art. Hillary, an academic painter, discussed the artist's role in using the subject of war as a vehicle for artistically created works depicting the human response to the danger of death in conflict.
In the early hours of 21 February 1917, off the isle of Wight, the steamship SS Darro, bound for an English Channel port, crashed into the starboard side of the troopship Mendi, which was carrying men of the South African Native Labour Contingent bound for France to work as labourers. The Darro's bow cut into the Mendi from keel to deck. The latter sank in 25 minutes, and over 600 of the men on her died. In 1987, Hillary Graham became involved in The Festival of Xhosa Art and Literature and encountered the works of the "imbongi" (praise-singer and poet) S.E.K. Mqhayi, especially his poem "The Sinking of the Mendi". Since the history of the Mendi was relatively unknown, Hillary created the concept of the "Mendi Installation", a composite work of about 200 paintings (which included his own triptych "Sinking of The Mendi"), mural poems and lectures on the oral tradition by Professor B. Mkonto; poems on the Mendi by the "Echo Poets" (Brian Walter, Cathal Lagan and Basil Somhlahlo) as well as a choral work performed by the Mathews Singers, a leading Eastern Cape choir. Norman Clothier, author of Black Valour, a book which paralleled Hillary's research, was invited to lecture on the tragedy. The Mendi Installation, which now belongs to the Mandela Metropole, was exhibited at the Standard Bank National Festival of Arts in Grahamstown and at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg and played a significant role in the reconstitution of the Mendi Memorial in New Brighton, a township of the Metropole. It is fitting that the memorial should be in the Eastern Cape as most of the Mendi men came from that area. Others came from KwaZulu-Natal, Basutoland and the Transvaal, encouraged by their chiefs and by Mqhayi's earlier poem "The Black Army". Perhaps also, some were motivated by the hope of land grants when they returned. A small bronze plaque at the Delville Wood memorial in France commemorates the loss of the Mendi and the location of the wreck of the Mendi has been declared a "protected site".
The talk by Hillary Graham on this dark moment in South African history was one of the most unusual and fascinating DDH talks we have had for many years and by approaching his subject through the arts, made it most compelling.
The main talk of the evening was entitled The Spanish Armada, but instead of talking about the battle, our speaker Dr. Gus Allen examined the events and circumstances which led eventually to what the English refer to as The Spanish Armada but what the Spanish at the time called The Enterprise of England. Based on the Pope's urging, King Philip of Spain was to attack England to depose Elizabeth Tudor in favour of Mary Stewart. Philip, King of Spain from 1556, ruled over an empire so vast that it was said "He hath now got a command so wide that out of his domains the sun can neither rise or set". It included wide tracts of land in Europe; across the Atlantic; on the Pacific Coast; and beyond to the Philippines. To extend this empire even further Philip married Mary Tudor, Queen of England, to cement the Anglo-Spanish alliance against France. In the New World, the magnet in Mexico and Peru was silver and gold to be extracted there and shipped to Spain. Every spring the outward bound fleet, the Flota, sailed from Seville and other ports on the Guadalquiver River, to the Caribbean where the fleets divided, some making for the islands and some to the ports of San Juan de Ulloa and Vera Cruz in New Spain. There they wintered and loaded silver brought down through Mexico. In August the Galleones left the Guadalquiver ports for Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama, laden with Peruvian silver, and spent the winter in Cartagena. In March the two fleets joined up at Havana and returned to Spain.
Some treasure was intercepted, such as the raid by Francis Drake in 1573, in Nombre de Dios bay. In 1558 Elizabeth Tudor became queen on the death of her half sister Mary, and re-introduced Protestantism. The Catholic Mary Stewart, Queen of Scotland, laid claim to the English throne without, at this stage, Philip's support. The Spanish Catholic opposition to Elizabeth hardened after the appointment of the harsh Duke of Alva as governor-general of the Netherlands; and in the New World, as a result of the English slaving expeditions to the colonies on the Spanish Main, which encroached on Spanish claims to a trade monopoly. This claim was based on Spain's prior discovery of the West Indies and papal support that the New World was the property of Castille.
Queen Elizabeth made a significant investment in Hawkins's 1564-65 expedition, and providing 2 ships, one of them the Minion, for his 1567- 68 expedition. John Hawkins and his kinsman Francis Drake collected slaves from the Guinea coast and crossed to the Caribbean to dispose of them. Storm driven, the English ships took shelter in the Mexican harbour of San Juan de Ulloa. The Spanish fleet arrived from Spain and attacked the English ships. The Minion and the Judith escaped but only the Minion limped home, while many English sailors from the Judith were taken prisoner on the Florida coast. In November 1568 Spanish ships carrying money intended for the Duke of Alva's army in the Netherlands, were attacked by privateers and ran for shelter to Plymouth harbour. The Spanish ambassador, de Spes, accused the English queen of confiscating the money, which was taken to the Tower of London. Diplomatic relations between England and Spain ceased. Mary Stewart fled to England when her Scottish subjects rebelled against her, and she was imprisoned by Elizabeth. In England the Catholic northern earls planned to rise in support of Mary. Ambassador de Spes supported the Ridolfi plot to place Mary on the English throne, but the plot came to nothing. In Philip's "fatal inheritance" the seventeen provinces of the Netherlands added to the general Catholic-Protestant confrontation under the Catholic Duke of Alva, with England and France supporting the Protestant William of Orange, who controlled Holland and Zeeland. In 1578 Alexander Farnese, Prince of Palma, succeeded Alma and political refugees from the Netherlands sought asylum in England.
In the late 1570's the throne of Portugal fell vacant, and after a land/sea assault, Philip became King of Portugal and thus gained a second overseas empire and the Portuguese Atlantic fleet. Following Parma's military successes in the Netherlands, the States-General of the United Provinces turned to France and England for help. The claim of Henry, Duke of Guise, to the French throne was strongly supported by the Catholic League, which was backed by Philip of Spain and England watched the triumphal march of Catholicism in Europe with anxiety.
The Throckmorton plot in favour of Mary Stewart revealed French and Spanish involvement at a high level. This led to increased English support for the Dutch rebels, and the Earl of Leicester landed at Flushing at the head of an English expeditionary force. Some 3 months earlier, Francis Drake had sacked Galicia in Spain and then sailed on to raid the Spanish Main. This was the last straw for Philip, and he was now prepared to take on the "Enterprise of England", mentioned above. The main plan involved the launching of a strong fleet to defeat the English ships and to shepherd an army across the Channel; and in a diversionary assault on the south-east coast of Ireland, which would open the English mainland to invasion. In 1587, Mary Stewart was executed after the uncovering of the Babington plot. This led to a furious French reaction in support of Philip's plan. Meanwhile Sir Edward Stafford, the English ambassador in Paris, treacherously passed confidential information to Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador.
Queen Elizabeth decided on a more aggressive policy and in 1587 ordered Drake to attack ships in Spanish ports. Drake destroyed many ships in Cadiz harbour, the so-called "singeing of the King of Spain's beard". The Spanish then resolved to appoint a practical man with administrative skills to create a coherent fighting force for a co-ordinated attack on England. This man was Don Alonso Perez de Guzman, Duke of Medina Sidonia.
Dr Gus Allen, having sorted out the entanglement of politics, religion, trade and the military (mostly naval) that dominated this period in European and colonial history, left us eagerly awaiting a later talk on the sending of the Armada and exactly what happened when the 2 navies of Spain and England met in one of the most famous of all sea battles.
In proposing the vote of thanks to the two speakers, our Chairman, Paul Kilmartin, commended Hillary Graham on his interesting and novel approach and to Dr. Gus Allen for laying a solid foundation for a future talk on the Armada campaign.
The main talk for the March meeting promises to be something very special for the Society. GENERAL ALBIE GOTZE, now long retired from the SAAF, had a distinguished career as a pilot both during and after World War II. His talk will be MY ROLE AS A FIGHTER PILOT, at ARNHEM, 1944. Our speaker was heavily involved in Operation Market Garden, the Battle of Arnhem, and participated in all phases of the air battle. As a fighter pilot he flew rocket firing Typhoons from bases in France close behind the fighting lines, and will explain in a well-illustrated talk his role in support of the airborne operation and the armies fighting on the ground. This will be another highlight in our series "I Was There".
The DDH will be the first of 3 talks in 2004 on facets of the Italian campaign in World War II. Our Vice Chairman, BILL BRADY will talk to us on THE RESCUE AND FALL OF MUSSOLINI.
Subscriptions for 2004 are now getting close to being past due. Most KZN members have already paid, and grateful thanks to all those who have done so. If it has slipped the mind of remaining members, please send you subscription ASAP to Joan Marsh in Johannesburg.
The AGM will be held in April and now is the time for all members to consider the make-up of your committee for the next 12 months. If any member wants to stand for the committee or would like to recommend a member who can add value to our deliberations, please contact Dr. INGRID MACHIN on 031-201-3983 to get the name submitted. It is important that new blood is added to ensure the future growth of the Society, both in numbers of members and in subject matter. Please give it some thought and contact Ingrid to give her your opinions.
Please see the enclosed sheet for the detail on the BATTLEFIELD TOUR - 2004. It looks as though another special tour is being planned for members and friends who will be attending.
To all Members
It is your committees intention to obtain a full and detailed database of members contact details, so that in the case (for example) of a sudden change in meeting details, we can make quick and easy contact by telephone, e-mail or fax. It will also be possible when we have a full list of e-mail addresses to send out the full years programs, up-to date details on battlefield tours, and other details of interest, all on a regular basis.
For that reason could you please provide us with the following information, all of which will be kept securely within the Society:
Married, Single or Life Membership
Telephone No: Office
Telephone No: Home
Telephone No: Cell
Some members will remember that we attempted to do this back in 2001, but this time we intend to complete the task in order to provide a better service to all members.
Please fill in this form and bring to the March meeting so that we can start the process immediately. For those who will not be attending the meeting, please send this completed sheet to:
Dr. Ingrid Machin, 4 Hadley, 101 Manning Road, Durban, 4001.
Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
S.A.MILITARY HISTORY SOCIETY
4 Hadley, 101 Manning Road, Glenwood, Durban, 4001