Bell from First World War ship that sank with loss of 607 lives is presented to South Africa  

The troopship SS Mendi, which sank with the loss of 640 lives
The troopship SS Mendi, which sank with the loss of 640 lives

A First World War relic linked to one of the worst maritime disasters in English waters has been presented to South Africa by Theresa May.

The Prime Minister gave the Mendi bell to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in a ceremony at Cape Town's presidential office.

Karabo Tigedi, four, holding the South African flag. A choir, accompanied by schoolchildren from Portsmouth, sang a traditional South African song at Guildhall Square in 2017 to mark the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi during the First World War. The ship sank just off the Isle of Wight.'Picture: Habibur Rahman

Karabo Tigedi, four, holding the South African flag. A choir, accompanied by schoolchildren from Portsmouth, sang a traditional South African song at Guildhall Square in 2017 to mark the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi during the First World War. The ship sank just off the Isle of Wight.'Picture: Habibur Rahman

More than 600 men, the majority of whom were black South Africans, drowned off the Isle of Wight after the SS Mendi was rammed by a British merchant ship. Nine are buried in Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth.

The troop carrier was en route to the Western Front when the February 1917 incident occurred amid a pre-dawn fog just south of the Isle of Wight.

Mrs May said: ‘I'm proud to be able to present the historic bell from the SS Mendi to President Ramaphosa and the people of South Africa.

‘Six hundred and seven black troops from the South African Native Labour Corps who set sail from Cape Town just over a century ago sadly never reached their destination, and never served alongside many other Allied forces on the Western Front.

Nine of those who died on the SS Mendi are buried at Milton cemetery in Portsmouth'Picture: Habibur Rahman

Nine of those who died on the SS Mendi are buried at Milton cemetery in Portsmouth'Picture: Habibur Rahman

‘Today is an important opportunity to commemorate this tragedy in our shared history and is yet another example of the close bonds, historical links and mutual respect which underpins the UK's very close relationship with South Africa.’

The men were due to have helped build railways, trenches, camps and roads in support of the Allied war effort, according to Historic England.

The SS Mendi shipwreck lies just off the Isle of Wight.

The Mendi bell was found and restored last year after being lost from the shipwreck in the 1980s.