Ownership of the wreck is complicated
WHO MIGHT lay claim to ownership of the Mendi bell?
South African scholar Kathy Munro said this week there was “a strong case for South African interests to prevail”, though the honorary associate professor at Wits University, and curator of The Heritage Portal website‚ acknowledged in an article on the site it was a complex matter.
The uncertainty over who might claim ownership emerges in a comprehensive 2007 Wessex Archaeology report on the Mendi, commissioned by English Heritage – and dedicated to members of the South African Native Labour Corps, the Mendi dead and their families and communities.
It records that the 4 229-ton SS Mendi was built in Glasgow in 1905 for the British and African Steam Navigation Company, which by the outbreak of World War I formed part of the Elder Dempster Line. Until 1916 the Mendi was engaged exclusively in the Liverpool-West Africa trade. It was chartered by the Ministry of Transport in autumn 1916, being fitted out as a troopship in Lagos in October.
But Wessex Archaeology said it had been “unable to establish who owns the wreck”.
Munro believed the discovery of the bell “must surely inspire and energise the South African Heritage Resources Agency to negotiate the return of the bell to South Africa where it surely belongs”.
The official position, however, is muddled. Wessex Archaeology explained why.
“Neither the Mendi nor the Darro (which collided with the Mendi) were Royal Navy ships, although the Mendi was on UK government war service at the time. But, as it sank as a result of a collision, it was a marine rather than a war loss. As such the War Risk Office would not have been involved in the insurance claim and the Department for Transport is not therefore the owner of the wreck.
“As a marine loss, the Mendi would almost certainly have been the subject of an insurance claim and the insurers would normally have become the owners of the wreck. However enquiries of the relevant Elder Dempster records indicate they have not survived and enquiries of Lloyds have failed to identify the insurers concerned. The Salvage Asso- ciation has been unable to locate the owners.”
The report notes “some years ago (Isle of Wight diver and owner of a shipwreck centre and maritime museum) Martin Woodward approached Ocean Transport and Trading, the successors to Elder Dempster, with regard to acquiring ownership. Whilst they had no objection, they were unable to confirm they were the owners.”
Wessex Archaeology noted that it was “unaware of any other party that has sought to establish ownership or right of claim. While it seems highly unlikely that any such claim could exist, it is not inconceivable, and could impact upon the management of the site”.
The SS Mendi’s bell.