Own­er­ship of the wreck is com­pli­cated

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

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.

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