Robben Island Bible
Robben Island was the site of notorious prison in South Africa primarily used to house political prisoners from the 17th century until the 1990s.
Political prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam, under intense pressure from hard labor and absolute tedium, requested a book. He was told that he could only have one book, a Bible. He smuggled in a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare under the guise of it being a Bible. Here is part of his story:
[Sonny Venkatrathnam described life on the island:] “All we did was break stones… big stones to small stones and at the end of the day the water would wash it away. It was senseless.”[…] Venkatrathnam asked the warders for access to books and was told that he could purchase just one. “My problem was what to buy to last me a long time.” It also had to be the kind of book which could be read “over and over” again, he said. He chose The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.[…]
With the decision made, his wife Theresa, now forced to be a single mom of three children in Durban, managed to scrape together the money and buy the book and send it to the island.
But as conditions in the prison worsened his book was taken away. Then one Sunday, when services were held at the prison as usual, Robertson, known as the most racist warder on the island, told Sonny to get his Bible. Sonny replied that he had left it in the storeroom. He was allowed inside the storeroom and grabbed his book from the shelf, telling the warder: “See the bible by William Shakespeare.” His audacious plan had worked, but now he had to devise a means of keeping the book in his possession.
“I felt guilty that I lied,” he said. According to Venkatrathnam, by calling it his Bible the warders would not touch it. “The one thing the Afrikaner is scared of is God and a lawyer,” he said with a chuckle. And so the Robben Island “Bible” was born. His fellow inmates then came up with a plan to protect his “bible”.
His family, who were Hindu, had sent him Deepavali greeting cards and Venkatrathnam and his inmates covered the “Bible” with the Deepavali cards, depicting Hindu gods, and plastic to disguise it. The book was read by many of the inmates and when he was due to be released Venkatrathnam sent it to his comrades and friends in prison and asked then to sign the passages which they found most meaningful or enjoyed the most.
Nelson Mandela, Mac Maharaj, Raymond Mhlaba, Billy Nair, Govan Mbeki, Mobbs Gqirana, JB Vusani, Frank Anthony and Andrew Masondo are among those who signed the book. There are 32 signatures in total.
Here is Sonny with the Robben Island Bible:
Reportedly, thirty-two passages are marked as favorites in the book: Billy Nair marked Caliban’s lines in The Tempest which begin “This island’s mine”, and Walter Sisulu chose Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice which includes ”for sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.” Nelson Mandela picked these lines from Julius Caesar:
Cowards die many times before their deaths:
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
On Tuesday, as part of a special World Shakespeare Festival in Britain, the Southbank Centre is showing a play based on the story of the Roben Island Bible. As part of the same national Festival, the British Museum will have a special exhibition starting later in July called “Shakespeare: Staging the World” which features the Robben Island Bible. (It was the excellent accompanying book for this exhibition that brought the Roben Island Bible to my attention.) And a promising book by Ashwin Desai, Reading Revolution: Shakespeare on Robben Island reportedly tells the story of the Robben Island Bible in detail. (I have not yet read the Desai book, but have it on order.)