In search of bell’s right­ful place

UK’s Re­ceiver of Wreck deter­min­ing who may claim SS Mendi arte­fact

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL MOR­RIS

THE FI­NAL home of the his­toric bell from the SS Mendi – which sank off the English coast a cen­tury ago, claim­ing the lives of more than 600 black South African troops bound for war duty – will prob­a­bly be known “rel­a­tively soon”, says Bri­tain’s Re­ceiver of Wreck.

Ali­son Ken­tuck’s depart­ment is re­spon­si­ble for over­see­ing all mar­itime wrecks and sal­vage in the UK.

She said the “res­o­nance” of the bell in South African his­tory would have a bear­ing on deter­min­ing the arte­fact’s fate.

For the time being, the brass bell, de­liv­ered anony­mously to a BBC re­porter in Swan­age on the south coast of Eng­land a week ago, was “in the care” of the Sea City Mu­seum in Southampton, Ken­tuck said.

“The bell is in the se­cure art store un­der­go­ing a con­di­tion as­sess­ment,” she said.

“One of the main func­tions of the Re­ceiver of Wreck is to de­ter­mine le­gal own­er­ship of re­cov­ered wreck ma­te­rial. We are there­fore deter­min­ing who has a le­gal right to this bell. We do have some in­for­ma­tion on that al­ready, and I would hope that own­er­ship can be con­firmed rel­a­tively soon.

“We are cer­tainly aware of the res­o­nance that this bell will have in South Africa and I have no doubt this will form part of the dis­cus­sion on the bell’s long-term fu­ture.”

In terms of Bri­tish law, any­thing re­cov­ered from a wreck or found on the shore must be re­ported to the Re­ceiver of Wreck.

Penal­ties may be im­posed for fail­ing to do so – which could ex­plain why the Mendi bell had been re­lin­quished anony­mously.

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.

It be­came a pop­u­lar dive site un­til, in 2009, Bri­tain’s Ministry of De­fence des­ig­nated the wreck a pro­tected war grave, mak­ing it an of­fence to re­move items.

The bell, with the name “Mendi” deeply etched in cap­i­tals on its side, came to light when an un­known donor left it, wrapped in plastic, at Swan­age Pier in the town of Swan­age on the Dorset coast in the early hours of last Wed­nes­day, hav­ing alerted BBC re­porter Steve Humphrey.

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 caller is re­ported to have said the re­cent cov­er­age of the Mendi cen­te­nary had prompted him to hand it over.

The SS Mendi went down in the early hours of 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 Fifth 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.

In the cen­tury since, the Mendi disaster has be­come a sym­bol of un­re­warded black val­our – none of South Africa’s black vol­un­teers in the war re­ceived the Bri­tish War Medal – and the depre­da­tions of 20th cen­tury his­tory.

The deaths are memo­ri­alised at var­i­ous sites in South Africa, Bri­tain and Europe.

Ken­tuck said she and her deputy had at­tended the cen­te­nary com­mem­o­ra­tion of the Bat­tle of Delville Wood and the un­veil­ing of the wall and gar­den of re­mem­brance at Longue­val last year and “were able to see the part of the Delville Wood Com­mem­o­ra­tive Mu­seum that is ded­i­cated to the SS Mendi”.


Men of the Fifth Bat­tal­ion of the South African Na­tive Labour Con­tin­gent on board the Mendi on their fate­ful voy­age.


Ali­son Ken­tuck, the UK’s Re­ceiver of Wreck.

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