SS Mendi’s bell sur­faces

Anony­mous donor leaves it at pier

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL MOR­RIS and IAN WIL­LIAMS

THE ship’s bell of the doomed SS Mendi – which would al­most cer­tainly have been sounded as the ves­sel sank in the English Chan­nel a cen­tury ago, claim­ing the lives of more than 600 black South African troops bound for France – has been found.

An un­known donor left the bell, wrapped in plas­tic, at Swan­age Pier in the town of Swan­age on the Dorset coast in the early hours of Wed­nes­day morn­ing, hav­ing alerted BBC re­porter Steve Humphrey.

The caller is re­ported to have said the re­cent cov­er­age of the Mendi cen­te­nary had prompted him to hand over the arte­fact. It bears the name “Mendi” on its side.

A note un­der the plas­tic wrap­ping read: “If I handed it in my­self it might not go to the right­ful place. This needs to be sorted out be­fore I pass away as it could get lost.”

The BBC re­port on the find sug­gests that the bell “is thought to have been stripped from the wreck by divers”. The wreck was lo­cated on the seabed 11 nau­ti­cal miles (20km) south west of St Cather­ine’s Point on the Isle of Wight in 1945, and pos­i­tively iden­ti­fied in 1974.

The re­port quotes mar­itime ar­chae­ol­o­gist John Grib­ble, who has sur­veyed the ship, as say­ing the bell is “prob­a­bly gen­uine”.

“The bell has never been re­ported found, but given the ex­tent to which the site was stripped of non-fer­rous me­tals in the past I’d be very sur­prised if the bell was still on the wreck,” Grib­ble told the BBC. “The bell looks right. It’s the right sort of size for a bell of that pe­riod.”

The BBC re­ported that Bri­tain’s Re­ceiver of Wreck said the bell “would prob­a­bly be given to a mu­seum while a de­ci­sion was made about its fu­ture”, adding that the South African gov­ern­ment had been no­ti­fied of the find.

The SS Mendi went down on Fe­bru­ary 21, 1917, claim­ing the lives of 607 vol­un­teers of the South African Na­tive Labour Con­tin­gent, and nine of their white of­fi­cers, af­ter be­ing struck in thick mist by a larger ves­sel, SS Darro, sail­ing at speed.

The Mendi tragedy was South Africa’s sec­ond-big­gest loss in the war af­ter the at­tri­tion of Delville Wood some months ear­lier, in 1916.

The Mendi troops, most of whom drowned, were men of the 5th bat­tal­ion of the South African Na­tive Labour Con­tin­gent, all of them vol­un­teers. Among the dead were three Pon­doland chiefs, Henry Bok­leni, Dokoda Richard Ndamase and Mx­onywa Ban­gani.

The troops were bound for the French port of Le Havre, where they were to have joined the ranks of a mam­moth labour corps drawn from else­where in Africa, the Mid­dle East, Asia and the Caribbean.

In the cen­tury since, the Mendi dis­as­ter has be­come a sym­bol of un­re­warded black val­our and the depre­da­tions of 20th cen­tury his­tory.

Though Prime Min­is­ter Louis Botha and the en­tire House of Assem­bly rose in silent re­spect when news of the catas­tro­phe reached South Africa in March 1917, the tragedy of the Mendi, then and in the in­ter­ven­ing cen­tury, was deep­ened by the pol­i­tics of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion that gov­erned the treat­ment of the black wartime vol­un­teers, and their ne­glect when the war ended.

Un­like ev­ery sin­gle labour corps vet­eran from other coun­tries – in­clud­ing Swazi­land, Botswana and Le­sotho, and all the other states across the world – not a sin­gle black South African re­ceived the Bri­tish War Medal.

And for those who be­lieved that vol­un­teer­ing to serve in Europe in de­fence of king and coun­try would be re­warded po­lit­i­cally at the ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties, all they got was more de­pri­va­tion and harsher dis­crim­i­na­tion.

An en­dur­ing fea­ture of the Mendi mythol­ogy is the ac­count of chap­lain Isaac Wau­chope Dy­obha ral­ly­ing the doomed men on the deck of the Mendi, lead­ing them in a “death drill”.

There are no sur­vivors’ ac­counts of this, but for much of the past cen­tury it has been cen­tral to the Mendi catas­tro­phe nar­ra­tive.

The Mendi deaths are memo­ri­alised at var­i­ous sites in South Africa, Bri­tain and Europe. In 2003, the Mendi Medal was in­tro­duced as South Africa’s high­est hon­our for brav­ery.

The tragedy is re­mem­bered in the nam­ing of two South African Navy ves­sels – the Val­our class frigate, SAS Mendi, which laid a wreath in 2004 where its name­sake went down, and the mis­sile boat SAS Isaac Dy­obha.

In 2009, Bri­tain’s Min­istry of De­fence des­ig­nated the wreck as a pro­tected war grave, mak­ing it an offence to re­move items.

The wreck site and the Holly­bush Ceme­tery in Southamp­ton – where some of the Mendi dead are buried – were the fo­cus of com­mem­o­ra­tive events on the cen­te­nary of the dis­as­ter in Fe­bru­ary.


The win­ner of this year’s Com­rades Marathon, Bong­musa Mthembu, with his son, Sisanda, is to carry the South African flag at the start of the Bok-France Test in Dur­ban to­day.


BBC cam­era­man Steve Codling films the SS Mendi bell af­ter it was left at the en­trance to Swan­age Pier by an anony­mous donor.

The SS Mendi’s bell.

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