THE chance discovery of a forgotten gravestone in Littlehampton Cemetery has led to a military historian travelling thousands of miles to South Africa to find out more about a tragedy dubbed the “Black Titanic”.
Nick Ward, from East Preston, is due to speak to a large gathering of black historians, academics and politicians on the infamous Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned by the apartheid regime, and now considered to be the focus of black history in South Africa.
He is also expected to meet a government minister during his visit and there is interest in creating a stage play about the sinking of the SS Mendi off the Isle of Wight in 1917, the disaster commemorated on the gravestone in a quiet corner of the cemetery.
Nick came across the headstone while he was researching other soldiers buried nearby, and was struck by the fact the three men in the grave were known only as Simon, Jim and Smith.
He began to look into the story of the Mendi’s sinking – more than 600 men, most of them South African soldiers drafted in to fight a war on a distant continent, died when the troop ship sank after a collision in the Solent – and quickly realised there was a remarkable, and tragic, tale to tell.
Two months ago the Gazette reported on Nick and fellow historians laying a wreath on the grave to mark the 95th anniversary of the disaster, and the story was picked up by a South African journalist living here, who, in turn, wrote articles for several papers in her home country.
The publicity generated widespread interest in South Africa, and led to Nick being invited to visit the country.
“It’s been phenomenal,” said Nick. “They have so little history of their own, among the black people, so, for them, to learn more about the Mendi means an awful lot.
“Ultimately, I would like to see the relatives of the three men buried in Littlehampton given the opportunity to visit the grave, perhaps when a new headstone has been put up giving the men’s full names.