New work on the wreck of the SS Mendi, one of the most famous shipwrecks of the First World War, moved a step closer when the South African Government announced its intent to make the ship a flagship project in their war graves policy.
The Mendi and over 650 men, mainly members of the South African Native Labour Corps were lost in 1917 after a collision off the Isle of Wight, England. Infamously, none of the black servicemen on the Mendi or any other volunteers in the Labour Corps received a British War Medal or a ribbon after the war while their white officers did.
Wessex Archaeology undertook the first ever detailed study of the SS Mendi in 2007 when English Heritage funded a desk-based project. A year later a preliminary geophysical survey was supported by the South African Heritage Resources Agency, the UK Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Marine Environment Protection Fund, and English Heritage.
As a result of this work the wreck was given official UK recognition when it was designated by the UK Ministry of Defence under the Protection of Military Remains Act. Despite this status no funds have been available for further work.
Speaking in May in the South African Parliament Thabang Makwetla, the Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, spoke of the ‘real opportunity to retrieve the full story and gain access to the legendary maritime tragedy of the sinking of the troopship the SS Mendi just five years before we mark the centenary of this occurrence’ in 2017.
In recent months Wessex Archaeology has helped Dr Mothobi Muloaste, the South African playwright, author and publisher, and the British researchers Nick Ward and Jim and Rachel Stapleton in their joint research on the Mendi. This has including a briefing on UK heritage legislations during a visit to Salisbury. Sue Davies OBE, the Chief Executive of Wessex Archaeology said ‘this is a special but tragic story that brings together two nations. At Wessex Archaeology we stand ready to work with the South African Government and its people in their quest to give the men of the Mendi the recognition they deserve.'