When Nelson Mandela spent almost three decades in solitary confinement he was not alone — he had the pictures of a few Indian deities and the writings of William Shakespeare for inspiration. Locked in jail on Robben Island, newspapers were banned and letters from loved ones a rare treat.
Where did he find the inspiration to continue his long struggle for freedom? He found them in the musings of 17th century British playwright Shakespeare. A tattered book covered by Diwali cards with pictures of Hindu deities on it might have seemed like a strange choice for the South African political activist languishing in his cell.
But the beatifically smiling goddess on the cover knew something the prison wardens did not, CNN reported.
Inside was the “Complete Works of Shakespeare,” and the historic text became a source of strength for Mandela and his fellow inmates during their darkest days. It became known as the “Robben Island Bible,” and today is one of the most remarkable artifacts from Mandela’s 27 years in jail.
“What resonance does a white guy from England 400 years ago have to a group of South African political prisoners in the latter half of the 20th century?” said Matthew Hahn, who wrote a play based on the “Robben Island Bible,” and interviewed many of the inmates who read it.
“There’s this universality to Shakespeare — including many lessons on good and bad leadership — and I think Mandela found resonance in his words. He once said that ‘To be taken seriously as a politician, one must always quote from Shakespeare,’ and a lot of his speeches when he was president did just that.”
The book was smuggled into the jail by an Indian-origin political prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam, who disguised it in colourful Diwali cards celebrating the Hindu festival of lights, convincing the warden it was his bible.
Between 1975 and 1978, the volume was passed between 33 of Venkatrathnam’s fellow prisoners — including Mandela.
Many of the inmates signed and dated their names beside particularly poignant passages — words of hardship, political unrest, or injustice. Mandela chose a passage from Julius Caesar — just before the Roman statesman leaves for the senate on the Ides of March — and his sweeping handwriting on the now-yellowing page is a haunting reminder of the activist’s dedication to his cause.
It includes the lines: “Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once.