Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

From Mqhayi to Sole: Four Poems on the Sinking of the Troopship Mendi

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

From Mqhayi to Sole: Four Poems on the Sinking of the Troopship Mendi

Article excerpt

THIS ESSAY EXAMINES four South African poems on a single historical incident: the sinking of the troopship Mendi on 21 February 1917.1 In this, one of the most notable and in some respects controversial naval disasters of the First World War, 616 members of the (black) South African Native Labour Contingent and about a dozen white officers lost their lives.2 Robert Edgar has written of Africa's "provision of critical manpower and supplies to the war machines of the colonial powers and the impact the war had on the colonized world's social, economic and political situation."3 That this impact was processed and articulated in a number of different ways is evident in the textual ideology of the four poems discussed below.

The poems examined here were composed over a span of some sixty years, the earliest, by the poet, essayist, and novelist Samuel E. Krune Mqhayi (1875-1945), dating from 1931 at the latest, and the most recent, by Kelwyn Sole, published in the early 1990s.4 Two of the poems were composed as written texts: the Mqhayi, in isiXhosa, and the Sole, in English. A third, "The Sinking of the Troopship Mendi," was originally composed in isiZulu and appears in English translation in Oral Poetry from Africa, an anthology edited by Jack Mapanje and Landeg White. The origins of the fourth are, as I shall discuss below, uncertain, but it - or a fragment of it - appears as a printed text, in English, in a novel authored by A.S. Mopeli-Paulus and Peter Lanham.

In undertaking a comparative examination of four texts composed over a period of six decades, my intention is to identify the range of poetic devices and rhetorical strategies they employ, to demonstrate the range of propositions their authors draw from the Mendi disaster, and hence to formulate a tentative commentary (tentative, because of my reliance on translations) on tiie ideological terrain within the frame of which the historical event has been addressed.

A term that is useful here - one that is drawn from Terry Eagleton's Criticism and Ideology - is "ideology of the text." Eagleton notes that "the literary text is not the 'expression' of ideology [any more than it is] the 'expression' of social class. The text, rather, is a certain production of ideology."5 He later clarifies the relations in question with a diagram that illustrates how the text constitutes an act of signification that speaks from and to ideology, and how ideology constitutes an act of signification that speaks from history.

The poem "UKutEhona Kuku-Mendi" ("The Sinking of the Mendi") appears in a revised edition of Mqhayi's collection Ityala Lama-wele. While this volume bears no date of publication, its preface is dated 1931; thus, the Mendi poem was composed at some time prior to this date. Several English translations - or versions of an original translation - have appeared in print, one of which appears in the Penguin Book of South African Verse and is reprinted in Norman Clothier's Black Valour.6 This version is one considerably "worked up" from the original, perhaps to satisfy conventional English notions of the 'poetic'. I have accordingly worked from a literal translation kindly made for me by my colleague Maleshoane Rapeane.

Samuel E. Krune Mqhayi was often referred to during his lifetime as the Xhosa poet laureate; indeed, the prefatory note to his poem identifies him as "the nation's bard."7 He was present on the wharf when the Mendi embarked on its final voyage, giving courage to the troops.8 "The Sinking of the Mendi" is a substantial poem of forty-eight lines, divided into six sections.

In line with the tenets of the Christian faith that underpin it (for example, tiie notion that the crucifixion is immanent in the nativity), the poem opens with an affirmation of the inevitability of the disaster: "We who knew [...] were not surprised / Clearly seeing that it had to be like that."9 What is especially notable here is the degree of assurance in Mqhayi's affirmation. …

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