SS Mendi: Theresa May to return WW1 shipwreck’s bell to South Africa

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

Image caption This bell from the SS Mendi which sank in the Channel in 1917 killing more than 600 South Africans

A World War One relic linked to one of the worst maritime disasters in English waters is to be given to South Africa by Theresa May.

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

The vessel was rammed by a British merchant ship in thick pre-dawn fog.

The prime minister will hand it to President Cyril Ramaphosa in Cape Town on Tuesday.

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.

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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

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.

Most of the dead were members of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC), heading to France to carry out manual labour on the Western Front.

Image copyright Imperial War Museums
Image caption More than 800 members of the South African Native Labour Corps were on board the Mendi at the time of the disaster

The Darro's captain, who was blamed for the tragedy by the Board of Trade, was handed a one-year suspension of his master's certificate.

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 copyright Southampton City Council
Image caption The BBC's Steve Humphrey with the bell at Southampton's SeaCity Museum

It's 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.

On Tuesday the bell will be presented to the President of South Africa at a ceremony in Cape Town.

The Prime Minister's deputy official spokeswoman said: "This was the bell from the SS Mendi which sank in the Channel in 1917, killing more than 600 South Africans.

"It's a really important relic for them and the kind of focal point of their First World War remembrance."

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

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