Raising Private Mtolo Part 2: A soldier borne on the waves

23 February 2016 - 02:35 By Shaun Smillie

Chapter One: In a box buried deep in an archive in The Netherlands, Mark Sijlmans stumbled on a surprising discovery. He had expected to find the usual death certificates for the people of Zandvoort - single sheets of paper simply listing the names of the dead and the causes of death. But the document he found was different, made from unusually thick paper and greasy to the touch. He realised he was holding a small miracle. The document was an identification pass that black South Africans carried nearly 100 years ago. It had been taken off the body of Sikaniso Mtolo and had survived two months in the North Sea.Remarkably, the paper showed little damage - the sea water had not dissolved the ink, and the lettering was readable as the day the letter and Mtolo's body slipped into the ocean."This was something special, it was a strange feeling to have this piece of paper in my hands, knowing that Mr Mtolo had it on him when he died," Sijlmans said.The pass told Sijlmans that Mtolo was 30 years old when the document was issued four months before he died, that he stood five foot seven inches tall, and that he lived on a farm owned by a white farmer, near Richmond in what was then the province of Natal.Mtolo's body washed up on a beach near Zandvoort on April 29 1917 - 67 days after he drowned when the SS Mendi sank. In all, 646 people, most of them black South African troops, died when the steamship sank.The next day the public prosecutor in Haarlem in a statement declared that there were no objections to the burial of a male "presumably kaffer (sic)" whose name was Sikanisu (sic) Mtolo and whose death "may be assumed to be drowning".In the days thereafter a clerk took the pass that was found on the body and attached it to Mtolo's death certificate and stashed it alongside other clerical documents.There it stayed until the morning of January 22 2014, when Sijlmans travelled from his home town of Noordwijk to the Haarlem archives, a journey of about 25km.For a long time the amateur historian had ignored the gravestone that stood alongside the wall in Noordwijk cemetery. It was a gravestone for the remains of four South Africans, all casualties of the SS Mendi.He avoided the South African graves because he felt finding information about them would be difficult and he didn't know where to start.So, for years, he traced the personal histories of the occupants of the other war graves in the cemetery - the British, the German and the Canadian victims who had washed up on the Dutch shore. He has been fascinated with World War 1 since childhood."I am not so interested in the military strategies of the war, but the personal stories," he explained.He pieces together stories from various snippets of information gleaned from archives across the world. Sometimes he gets lucky and finds a photograph. If he can, he makes contact with the serviceman's relatives."Sometimes they tell me something about the dead person, sometimes they know nothing and I will tell them," Sijlmans said.In 2014 Sijlmans knew the time was right to look into the stories of the South Africans."I waited until I had researched all the others, then I decided let's give it a go," he said.Mtolo and the other three South Africans - Natal Kazimula, Sitebe Molide and Arosi Zenzile - were moved to the Noordwijk cemetery after their remains were exhumed in Zandvoort in 1920. It was a move to centralise the war cemeteries scattered along the coast.Sijlmans had neither heard of Richmond nor could he get his tongue around the names of the clans on the document.But what Sijlmans did know was the piece of paper he held gingerly in his hands that winter morning was a clue.From that information he could possibly make contact with the descendants of Mtolo's family and they could perhaps tell him the back story of how the body of a black South African soldier ended up on a beach in the Netherlands...

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