Rick and I did a couple of shoots last week for entirely different clients, but both involved maritime tragedy brought about by the hubris and stupidity of those in command. Coming back from the second shoot on the train I started to reflect on the idea of “Leadership” and what it means. Perhaps a ship and its command are where we see the qualities of leadership most exposed, where the mistakes are immediately apparent. But both these stories are about decisions of leadership and their tragic consequences. Thinking further, it made me wonder about the reckless “leadership” I see going on all around me at the moment and the outcomes of poor decisions or sometimes lies.
The first shoot was with Michael Palin (he of Monty Python fame) who has written a book about a ship called HMS Erebus. We have come across the Erebus before. It was the ship at the heart of the National Maritime Museum’s Death In The Ice exhibition earlier this year, which we made some short films for. The exhibition was about Sir John Franklin’s tragic expedition to the Arctic. It was a scientific expedition, Franklin and his crew were searching for the Northwest Passage and making studies into Magnetic North. Cutting a long story short the Erebus and another ship, HMS Terror became trapped in the ice and the crews to both perished. But Palin’s book also deals with the previous history of the Erebus. Captained by James Clarke Fox, the Erebus had made successful voyages to the Antarctic, arguably more difficult missions. These expeditions were also scientific, studying magnetism, ornithology, oceanographic and botanical data. Fox returned his crew to Blighty virtually unscathed.
The second shoot was in Southampton for 14-18 NOW (an arts initiative, to commemorate the First World War). A South African theatre group, the Isango Ensemble, have devised a wonderful musical play about the sinking of the SS Mendi. The SS Mendi had been requisitioned by the British Army to bring men of the South African Native Labour Corps to help with the conflict in Europe. They were not allowed to be soldiers but were recruited to help with labouring tasks away from the front. The Mendi was a relatively small ship. There were 823 men on board with lifeboat provision for 289.
When the men of the South African Labour Corps arrived in France they were not allowed to fraternise with the white troops or the French people. They were encamped in separate quarters and forbidden to use the shops or streets of the country they were helping to liberate. Basically, it was Apartheid transported, organised racism.
In the early hours of the 21st of February 1917 the South Africans were nearing the end of their long journey in the English Channel when the SS Mendi was struck by a mail ship, the HMS Darro. The Darro was three times the size of the Mendi – the Mendi was effectively cut in half and quickly sank. The Captain of the Darro, Henry W. Stump, chose not to stay at the scene of the collision to assist with the rescue. 616 South Africans died, 607 were black troops. Captain Stump was suspended for a year, his reason for leaving the scene never really made clear but his responsibilities as a naval captain should have been to save as many from the stricken vessel as humanly possible. The Mendi tragedy, up until recently, has never really been given the prominence it deserves. A memorial we filmed in a Southampton cemetery is certainly a moving experience to see – the rows of the 607 Swazi, Pondo, Zulu and Mfengu names speak volumes.
Captain Stump’s decision to leave the scene is not fully explained but certainly an element of the stricken people being black and perhaps not “mattering” is suggested.
So there we have it, some “leadership” decisions from our past. Our democracy, our institutions, our military, regarded as the fairest in the world are sometimes headed by the unworthy, leaving the innocent to suffer the consequences. Maybe Sir John Franklin could have asked the Inuit people of the Arctic how to survive the winter they had endured for millennia. What stopped him? Pride? Arrogance? The English popular press of the time suggested that maybe the Inuit had eaten the crew of the Erebus. But why the Inuit would bother to do this when for centuries they had survived on fish, bear and seal escapes me. Maybe there was a moment that Franklin could have seen that the mission was doomed and headed his men home to safety. With the SS Mendi, someone made the decision to sail a voyage that would take over six weeks with inadequate lifeboat provision and a man, unsuitable to be a captain of HMS Darro, made a fatal decision and got away with it.
Moving swiftly forward to the present; recently, someone, a “leader”, made the decision to separate the children of asylum seekers from their parents at their border and keep the children in cages. Someone, a “leader”, lied to the British people about the amount of money our health service would receive after Brexit deliberately misleading the UK electorate. Someone, a “leader”, allowed the wrong kind of cladding to be used on a block of council flats in North Kensington, which burnt to the ground killing men, women and children. Less seriously, someone, a “leader”, at the BBC thought it was okay to pay women less than men.
In business, “leaders” at Carillion, BHS and RBS acted out of greed and not in the best interests of their companies, shareholders or employees.
Being a leader is quite difficult, but we should be aware, the average outnumbers the excellent by some margin. And, I suppose what I am saying is; as we are all “leaders” of ourselves we should question our institutions, elected or otherwise more often and call them out as and when. The truth is rarely commemorated by statues or honours but is often staring us in the face.