Mandela and the Shakespeare Bible of Robben Island

On a recent trip to Cape Town, my family and I visited Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent decades of his prison sentence. On the tour, I was fascinated to learn how prisoners continued their own education, including systems for teaching each other to read and for deliberating and debating political issues. 

It came as no surprise to me, then, when I found this podcast about the volume of Shakespeare that was hidden and circulated on Robben Island. 

Shakespeare scholar David Schalkwyk sets up the story thus: 

It’s also known as the Robben Island Bible. Now the reason for that is that Sonny Venkatrathnam, who is of Indian extraction, was allowed, when he first went into prison, was allowed one book, and he chose The Complete Works of Shakespeare. And there was a point at which regulations changed, depending on how strict the particular governor was at the time, and particular events on the island. Sonny caused some trouble, he was involved in a hunger strike, I think, if I am correct, and this book was confiscated.

And one day, as he tells the story, they were summoned to go to the church service, and he had a brilliant idea. And he said to the warder, “If I’m going to the church service, can I have my Bible back?” And the guy said, “What Bible?” And he said, “It’s in the warden’s office” and described it, and this fellow brought back The Complete Works of Shakespeare and gave it to him. And Sonny then had some Diwali cards and he pasted these Diwali cards on the outside of the book and he pretended that it was his Hindu Bible. [LAUGH] And so that’s why it’s known as the Robben Island Bible.

Listen to the whole episode over at the Folger Shakespeare Library (or above). 

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