It was a beautiful summer’s morning in Dorset when BBC reporter Steve Humphrey and his TV crew went down to Swanage Pier. It was the 15thof June 2017, the time was 4am and no-one was around. On arrival he saw something wrapped in a black tarpaulin sack, and an envelope stuck on the package, bearing his name.
Inside the wrapping was the thing that Humphrey had been searching for since the 1980’s when rumours surfaced that it had been found by divers: The SS Mendi Bell.
Also inside the bag: A lobster.
The author of the anonymous letter, inside the envelope, implored Humphrey to make sure the bell got to the right place, ending it poignantly: “This needs to be sorted out before I pass away as it could get LOST.”
It’s not known who the mystery person was who left the bell to Humphrey, but it’s believed the bell was recovered from the wreck of the SS Mendi in or around 1980. Swanage lies across from the Isle of Wight and is about 30 nautical miles from the Mendi wreck site.
The story of the SS Mendi is one of courage and bravery.
She sailed from Cape Town for France on 16 January 1917. Aboard her were 823 troops of the 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps. The Mendi stopped off at Plymouth before making for her final destination, La Havre, France. At about 04:55 on the foggy morning of 21 February, approximately eighteen kilometres off St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight, cargo ship Darro crashed into the Mendi’s starboard side.
The Mendi sank within about 25 minutes of the collision. Of the 823 troops that had travelled with the vessel, some 616 men perished. Despite the fear that must have gripped their hearts, it is believed that most did not panic and acted in a most disciplined manner after the collision.
The best publicised account of their heroism was that of the so-called ‘Death Dance’ or ‘Death Drill’.
The story of the Reverend Dyobha was especially compelling. In his final address on board the Mendi, the Reverend led those who could not make it into a life boat in a death dance, telling them:
“You are going to die, but that is what you came to do… let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.”
In the years that followed, the SS Mendi became a focus of black resistance, a physical symbol of black South Africans’ long fight for social and political justice.
Today, the country remembers the heroes of the SS Mendi, and the courage displayed by these men is legendary in South African military history. The highest decoration for heroic deeds in the country is The Order of Mendi for Bravery. The SS Mendi Memorial in Cape Town was listed as a national heritage site in 2016.
The bell of a ship is known as the ‘beating heart of a ship’ and finally, the SS Mendi bell has come home. Over a century after the tragedy, on 28 August 2018, UK Prime Minister Theresa May handed the bell to President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa seemed emotional when he remarked that “the gift of the bell is to return the souls of the men, who perished that fateful morning, to their homeland”.
The legend and bravery of the souls on-board the SS Mendi lives on, and in these modern, ahistorical times, we would do well to look to the past for some valuable lessons on courage.