“We are forever grateful for the sacrifice of the 600 people who died on their way to join the Allied forces on the Western Front,” May said. She said the day was significant as it signalled another example of the close bond the UK shares with South Africa.
The SS Mendi is known as one of the worst maritime disasters. The SS Mendi was a British steamship of 4230 tons that was built in 1905. On February 1917, a large cargo steamship, the SS Darro, collided with the SS Mendi in the English Channel.
The SS Mendi sank, killing 646 people, most of them South African troops.
The complement comprised 602 black soldiers, five white soldiers and 17 NCOs. It has been reported that, based on the wide recruitment area of the South African contingent, they had been selected for their skills, and not just as manual labour.
Many are believed to have worked in the mining industry.
The bell was apparently found wrapped in a plastic bag left anonymously for BBC reporter Steve Humphrey last year.
The SS Darro, which was far larger than the SS Mendi and weighed 11484 tons. An inquiry into the sinking of the ship found Darro had failed to lower lifeboats, leaving the soldiers to drown. The captain, HW Stump, was later handed a one-year suspension of his master’s certificate. The story of the SS Mendi became a symbol of racial injustice in South Africa.