Edited and translated by

Jeff Opland and Abner Nyamende

with an introduction and notes by Jeff Opland


Jeff Opland is Professorial Research Associate in the Department of Africa at the School of Oriental Studies, University of London, and Research Fellow in the Department of African Languages, University of South Africa. He has taught at the University of Cape Town, the University of Durban-Westville, the University of Toronto, Rhodes University, Yale University, Vassar College, Charterhouse and the University of Leipzig. His writings include Xhosa Poets and Poetry (1998) and The Nation’s Bounty: The Xhosa Poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho (2007).


Dr Abner Nyamende is a lecturer in African Languages at the University of Cape Town. He has done extensive research in oral literature, especially on folktales and clan names. He has published widely in books, journals and magazines. His books of poetry in Xhosa are Imbongi Ijongexhantini, Amazwi Amatsha and Ubuncwane Bosiba. Dr Nyamende first lectured at Walter Sisulu University in the Transkei. He has been with African Languages at UCT now for 17 years.


Isaac Williams Wauchope


Isaac Williams Wauchope (1852-1917) was a prominent member of the Eastern Cape African elite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a Congregational minister, political activist, historian, poet and, ultimately, legendary hero in the Mendi disaster. As a Lovedale student he joined a missionary party to Malawi, he was instrumental in founding one of the first political organisations for Africans, a staunch ally of John Tengo Jabavu, an enthusiastic campaigner for the establishment of the University of Fort Hare, and he served a sentence of nearly two years in Tokai Convict Prison. For over 40 years, from 1874 to 1916, he was a prodigious contributor to newspapers, submitting news, comments, announcements, poetry, hymns, history and biography, travelogues, sermons, translations, explications of proverbs and royal praise poems. This volume assembles a selection of these writings, in English and in Xhosa, reflecting Isaac Wauchope's momentous and turbulent life.


Wauchope in Internatinal Order of True Templars regalia


(From Wauchope’s obituary by S.E. Krune Mqhayi)

…On 20 February 1917 the ship Mendi left England to cross the straits known as the English Channel, between England and France. Everyone thought they were beyond enemy threat, but danger lurked close at hand. That night was pitch black in the sea fog and the lights were ineffective. At dawn on the 21st a thunderous crash was heard as the Mendi was rammed by another ship, truly gigantic. They could not see each other. The Mendi was pierced in the side, and a huge fissure was opened through which the water poured in, eliminating all hope of saving her. The other ship struggled to rescue those who were drowning, but the confusion of darkness and war hampered the effort.

Reader, observe the frantic thrashing of people trying to save themselves! Danger of this sort was something new: they had no experience of it! Some woke befuddled by sleep and had no idea where to head for safety! It’s said there were too few lifeboats for the crowds on board. Then in an instant the ship went down like a stone! Reader, please observe your boys sucked down into a watery expanse without beginning or end! See them clutch at each other, ignorant of their actions! See them filling that boat there, more weight than it can bear, so that now all the dozens in it are engulfed by the sea! Never forget, reader, the cold of that country, and in water too! Think of the groups in that cold, their manly arms failing, their bodies sinking from sight! Never forget, reader, that the young men of your country worked wonders in that crisis, wonders in rescuing large numbers of white men who were their superiors, and lost their own lives in saving others!

Was there ever such a sacrifice? Don’t shut your ears, reader, to the cry of your country’s children. Does a sacrificial beast not cry because of the pain? Without it that sacrifice would not be acceptable! The cry is a sign that the sacrifice has been accepted. Didn’t our Lord utter a confused cry on Golgotha? Today that rock juts over the whole world.

But wait! Please do the right thing, my friend, my reader. Where exactly is the son of Citashe at this juncture?

Those who were there say the hero from Ngqika’s land, descended from heroes, was standing to one side now as the ship was sinking! As a chaplain he had the opportunity to board a boat and save himself, but he didn’t! He was appealing to the leaderless soldiers urging them to stay calm, to die like heroes on their way to war. We hear that he said:

Now then stay calm my countrymen!

Calmly face your death!

This is what you came to do!

This is why you left your homes!

Peace, our own brave warriors!

Peace, you sons of heroes,

Today is your final day,

Prepare for the ultimate ford!