It's no surprise that the tragedy of the SS Mendi was not part of our history books

Fred Khumalo Watching You
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and SA President Cyril Ramaphosa take part in the ceremony to hand over the bell of the SS Mendi in Cape Town. / MIKE HUTCHINGS /AFP
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and SA President Cyril Ramaphosa take part in the ceremony to hand over the bell of the SS Mendi in Cape Town. / MIKE HUTCHINGS /AFP

Many South Africans were bemused when British Prime Minister Theresa May, during her visit to our country this week, took time to hand over a church bell to our president.

"What is that bell for?" someone asked.

A friend responded, "It's from the SS Mendi."

The friend persisted, "What is the SS Mendi?"

A part of me was embarrassed that these people - black and in their 40s - didn't know what the SS Mendi was about.

But when I paused to think about it, I realised that I couldn't blame them. The Mendi is one of those very famous but least known stories, if you catch the contradiction.

To put the matter into context let us claw back to the past. With the outbreak of World War 1, the British Crown, which still held sway over this country that was called the Union of South Africa, recruited 23 000 black men to go and serve in Europe between 1916 and 1918, when the war finally ended.

In January 1917, one of the battalions sailed from Cape Town on a ship called the SS Mendi. A month later, the ship arrived in the UK where it offloaded gold bullion to the value of £5m, which was to finance the costly war.

Having discharged this valuable cargo, the ship then embarked on the last leg of its journey, from the UK to France, which was the theatre of the war.

But in the early hours of February 21, the ship was rammed on the side by what later turned out to be a commercial vessel called the SS Darro. The SS Mendi had been hit so hard it went down within an hour, taking the lives of 646 men.

Long after the war had ended, the story of the Mendi became a sore point, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the captain of the SS Darro, who had been found to have been negligent at a subsequent inquest, only received what sounded like a lenient sentence. His shipmaster's licence was suspended for 12 months.

What made the Mendi story even more odious is that the families of the deceased were never compensated, nor were the men given medals of recognition.

As confirmation that there was a conspiracy to obliterate the participation of black people in the war, the story of the Mendi was never included in our history books.

It was only last year, the centenary of the sinking, that we began to see local writers taking the matter into their hands by putting the story of the Mendi where it belongs - in the public domain.

Fred Khumalo's novel Dancing the Death Drill was among the first books to be published that paid tribute to black men who went down with the ship. Three other books have since been published about the Mendi.

Meanwhile, something intriguing happened in the UK last year. An anonymous person delivered to BBC journalist Steve Humphrey at Dorset a huge bell which, it turned out, had been taken from the remains of the SS Mendi, which still lie under the sea in the English Channel.

Accompanying the bell was a handwritten note in which the author said, "If I handed it in myself it might not go to the rightful place."

The implication is clear: the person who delivered the bell suspected that if he did not alert the media, another cover-up would ensue and the bell would simply disappear.

The bell might not be worth much, but its delivery to South Africa has contrived to resuscitate the story of the Mendi.

This, in turn, creates a climate for the descendants of those who went down with the Mendi to be emboldened to use the law to seek restitution for their forebears who died serving the Crown. And it's about time the debate was escalated.

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