Men of the 5th battalion of the South African Native Labour Contingent on board the Mendi on their fateful voyage. Picture: Imperial War Museum
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 likely be known “relatively soon”.

So says Britain’s Receiver of Wreck, Alison Kentuck, the official whose department is responsible for overseeing all maritime wrecks and salvage in the United Kingdom.

Britain’s Receiver of Wreck, Alison Kentuck

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 told Weekend Argus.

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

Kentuck added: “One of the main functions of the Receiver of Wreck is to determine legal ownership of recovered wreck material. We are therefore in the process of 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.”

Kentuck added: “We are certainly aware of the resonance that this bell will have in South Africa and I have no doubt that 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 was 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 morning, 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 over the artefact.

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 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.

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

Kentuck said this week 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 in 2016.

“We were able to see the part of the Delville Wood Commemorative Museum that is dedicated to the SS Mendi," she added.

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

Weekend Argus