On Tuesday, 28 August 2018 British Prime Minister Theresa May landed on South African shores on a state visit. Her visit was rather peculiar. First, unlike other state visits which normally last between two to three days with pomp and ceremony, hers lasted just a day. Or shorter. A dash to a school in Gugulethu that is apparently supported by one of the British organizations and a meeting with her South African counterpart, Mr Thuma Mina. Secondly, Mrs May brought with her SS Mendi Bell. The bell miraculously surfaced in England last year in anticipation of the centenary to mark what Kathy Munro described as “the country’s [South Africa] worst maritime disaster of the 20th century.”
Mendi was a passenger steamship launched in 1905 by Alexander Stephen and Sons. Her role was to service trade between West Africa and Liverpool. For a period of ten years Mendi undertook voyages between UK and West Africa under the management of Elder Dempster and Co. With the increasing demands of the war [First World War/ Great War], the British army contracted her as troopship in 1916. Thus, in January 1917 Mendi docked in Cape Town to collect the last members of the fifth Battalion of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC). The 802 Black men that occupied her belly on 17 January 1917 brought the number of SANLC to an impressive 70 000. Approximately 21000 of them were sent to France to help the warfront there. This is where the 802 was headed on that fateful day of 21 February 1917.
Their roles included the following;
– Working in hospitals
– Plantations and hewing wood. Hendrik Verwoed would later claim that natives are only good as ‘hewers of wood.’
– Working in the harbour loading cargo on ships
– Cleaning ‘mess tins’ in the trenches
Why is the ship’s bell important?
First, SS Mendi’s wreck was first identified in 1945. However, there was no certainty at that stage. It was only in 1974 that the wreck was positively identified. This was largely due to the fact that the wreck was beginning to break up and showing her boilers. Nonetheless, the bell is “perhaps the most significant artefact” that identifies a wreck with certainty because normally, the name of the ship is engraved on it. This is particularly significant for SS Mendi because up until last year (2017) her bell was never declared to have been found. Consequently, with the emergence of the bell the search for SS Mendi wreck which has since been declared a gravesite seems to have come full circle.
Archaeologist John Gribble who has researched Mendi concurs that the bell indeed belongs to Mendi because it “looks right” for “its time, material and size.”
What to do with Mendi Bell?
The bell must take a national tour of South Africa. Men who perished from her disaster were drawn from all the corners of the country. From “Tuynhuys” in Cape Town where Mrs May delivered it, it must proceed to Eastern Cape [83 of Mendi casualties came from the province dubbed ‘The Home of Legends’] visiting various regions and continue up North completing its journey in Limpompo. This would be reminiscent of the “Great trek” an event that marks 185 th anniversary this year. Thereafter, it must travel back to Eastern Cape where it must be housed at Port Elizabeth Museum (Bayworld) for the rest of its life. In its travels serious conversations must take place.
These may include;
– Demands for reparations. Apart from the 50 pounds that the South African parliament asked the British to pay to the casualties of Mendi, there’s nothing else that they got. Even the medals that all others got after the war. Such reparations may include the training of Black youth in maritime studies, a field that has been denied to them for many decades.
– The second debate should be about the aspirations of those who volunteered to help colonial powers. These include land. Blacks volunteered with the hope that the British will scrap the Natives Land Act that was passed five years earlier.
– The third debate should be about the country’s relations with England, the former colonial master and the rest of the world. For far too long African countries had their natural resources including human beings looted by the West.
Why is Port Elizabeth Museum (Bayworld) the best place to keep the bell?
– The focus of the museum is the ocean. The museum, the second museum in SA focuses on maritime heritage. Consequently;
– The museum has the largest maritime hall.
– Third, the museum has two artefacts from SS Mendi, silver salver and the porthole. These were donated by Callum Beveridge in about 1993. After he visited South Africa and viewed maritime exhibitions he reckoned that Bayworld Museum “produced the best maritime history hall in the country and were the most worthy institution to receive his donation.” He apparently dived on the "Mendi" and did receive permission from the relevant authorities in the UK to give the museum his donation.
– Furthermore, there’s a small SS Mendi memorial in New Brighton to complement the collection that the museum has.
– Importantly, two legends kept the legacy of SS Mendi alive. Both such legends were born of Eastern Cape soils. The first is by Poet Laurette Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi, imbongi yaseNtabozuko. Remembering the disaster of Mendi he cried;
“Le nqanaw’ uMendi namhla yandisile
Nal’ igazi lethu lisikhonzisile
Asinithumanga ngazo izicengo
Asinithenganga ngayo imibengo
Beku ngenga nzuzo zimakhwezikhwezi
Beku ngenga ndyebo zingange nkwekhwezi”
The second one comes from one of the casualties, Reverend Dyobha of the Amacethe clan in Fort Beaufort. Faced with death he burst into a famous Xhosa song by another legend from the “The Home of Legends”, this time from the Jwarha clan, Tiyo Soga;
“Lizalis’ idinga lakho
Thixo, Nkosi yenyaniso
Zonk’ intlanga, zonk’ izizwe
Needless to say, Mendi bell will be a significant artefact in the museum’s collection. Consequently, it will enhance its educational programmes.
Lindinxiwa Mahlasela works or history section of Bayworld Museum