the robben island bible
British Museum to display Robben Island copy of Shakespeare's works

A copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, known as the Robben Island Bible, was used by apartheid-era ANC prisoners including Nelson Mandela. It was passed from cell to cell and read in secret. The books owner originally passed it around to collect signatures, to remember his time in prison. He asked all the leading prisoners to sign next to their favorite passages.

Beside the passage in Julius Caesar beginning, “Cowards die many times before their deaths” is Mandela’s signature and the date, December 16 1977.


This is from the British Museum’s Facebook page:

This morning, the ‘Robben Island Bible’, one of the objects in our upcoming exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, was installed in the exhibition space.  The Robben Island Bible is a copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare that was kept in secret in the Robben Island jail near Cape Town during Apartheid in the 1970s. Prisoners marked their favorite passage or play including Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned on the island for 18 years.  

Mandela chose a passage from Julius Caesar; his signature dated 16 December 1977. In Africa, the play Julius Caesar had long been a symbol for rebellion against imperial rule. The prisoners used the book as a tool for learning, debate and inspiration.  

The book was kept by political prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam, and its cover was disguised with Diwali cards to prevent its seizure by prison authorities. It is a testament to the continuing importance and relevance of Shakespeare and his plays through time and across the globe and how, 400 years after they were first written, these plays and poems still have the power to speak to the world.