SS Mendi: WW1 shipwreck's bell returned to South Africa by Theresa May

  • Published
Media caption,

The prime minister handed the ship's bell to President Cyril Ramaphosa at a ceremony in Cape Town

A World War One relic linked to one of the worst maritime disasters in English waters has been returned to South Africa by Theresa May.

The SS Mendi sank off the Isle of Wight in 1917 killing more than 600 South Africans en route to the Western Front to support British troops.

The prime minister handed the ship's bell to President Cyril Ramaphosa at a ceremony in Cape Town.

She said it marked the "close bonds" between the two countries.

The SS Mendi sank on 21 February 1917 when it was accidentally rammed in thick fog by the Royal Mail packet-boat SS Darro.

A government inquiry said the Darro failed to lower lifeboats, leaving 646 men to drown. Its captain was later handed a one-year suspension of his master's certificate.

Image source, Imperial War Museums
Image caption,
More than 800 members of the South African Native Labour Corps were on board the Mendi

Most of the dead were members of the South African Native Labour Corps, heading to France to build railways, trenches, camps and roads on the Western Front.

Speaking at the presidential office in Cape Town, Mrs May said: "I'm proud to be able to present the historic bell from the SS Mendi to President Ramaphosa and the people of South Africa.

"Six hundred and seven black troops from the South African Native Labour Corps who set sail from Cape Town just over a century ago sadly never reached their destination, and never served alongside many other Allied forces on the Western Front.

"Today is an important opportunity to commemorate this tragedy in our shared history and is yet another example of the close bonds, historical links and mutual respect which underpins the UK's very close relationship with South Africa."

The story became a symbol of racial injustice in South Africa, where successive white-led governments discouraged annual Mendi Day commemorations.

In 1995, the Queen and Nelson Mandela unveiled a memorial to the Mendi victims in Soweto.

Image caption,
The bell from the SS Mendi is thought to have been removed for the shipwreck in the 1980s

The ship's bell was given to BBC reporter Steve Humphrey in 2017 in a plastic bag at Swanage Pier, Dorset, after an anonymous phone call.

A note in the bag 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."

Image caption,
A note was left with the bell, entrusting it to a BBC reporter
Image source, Southampton City Council
Image caption,
The BBC's Steve Humphrey with the bell at Southampton's SeaCity Museum

It is thought the bell was taken from the shipwreck in the early 1980s.

Until recently it had been on display at the Sea City Museum in Southampton.

Mrs May will also visit Nigeria and Kenya as part of her first trip to Africa since becoming prime minister.

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