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Robben Island Bible to take pride of place in Mitchell library

It is known as the Robben Island Bible.

GLASGOW CONNECTION: Nelson Mandela visited the city in 1993 for a concert to celebrate his release.
GLASGOW CONNECTION: Nelson Mandela visited the city in 1993 for a concert to celebrate his release.

But the book which is to take pride of place in one of Scotland's leading libraries next week contains not the words of the Old and the New Testaments, but the verse of William Shakespeare.

This book will be flown into Glasgow next week from South Africa, where it will be displayed to the public to mark Mandela Day on July 18.

It includes the lines judged by Nelson Mandela to be his favourite in all the writings of the world's most famous playwright.

The book was kept in a cell on the infamous apartheid-era prison island by Sonny Venkatrathnam, who was a political prisoner there in the 1970s.

It was smuggled into the jail for Venkatrathnam and he disguised its cover with Diwali Hindu greeting cards, to stop it being seized by the prison's authorities.

He then passed the book - the only one he had for his years of imprisonment - around the prisoners of the jail and asked them to sign their favourite sections.

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

They are the stoical words spoken just before the Roman leader leaves for the senate on the Ides of March.

The book contains 33 signatures in total.

Now it has been loaned to the city of Glasgow and will be on display in the Mitchell Library's main hall for the next three months.

Entry to the exhibition, titled Scotland and the Commonwealth - 400 Years in the Making, is free.

Mandela chose the section from the Roman play.

In the passage, Caesar says: "Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once/Of all the wonders that I have heard/It seems to me the most strange that men should fear/Seeing that death, a necessary end/Will come when it will come."

One day the book was taken away from Venkatrathnam by prison guards and locked in a storeroom.

However, one Sunday during the weekly prayer service, one of the guards ordered him to go and get a Bible.

Venkatrathnam answered that he had left it in the storeroom - he was allowed in took his copy of The Complete Works instead. He explained to the warden that it was his 'Bible' and was allowed to keep it in his cell as a holy text.

The Mitchell Library is expecting the exhibit to be popular, given the South African leader's links to the city.

The former South African president, who died last year at the age 95, was granted the freedom of Glasgow in 1981 during his imprisonment.

Mandela served 27 years in prison during the apartheid years before being released in 1990.

Five years later, Glasgow City Council renamed St George's Place after Mandela, and he was also honoured by the Glasgow, Strathclyde and Glasgow Caledonian universities.

In 1993 Mandela visited Glasgow for a special concert celebrating his release from prison and to thank the city for its support. Karen Cunningham, head of Glasgow Libraries, said: "Nelson Mandela had a great affection for Glasgow and we are extremely proud of our strong connection to such a remarkable man.

"He was arguably the greatest Commonwealth leader of all time and therefore it is fitting that we celebrate his life and achievements as we host the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

"The Robben Island Bible is of strong historical significance and we are grateful to Sonny Venkatrathnam for loaning us the book. I'm sure many visitors will come along to the Mitchell Library to see it in person."

In a recent interview Venkatrathnam said: "When I had The Bible autographed by my comrades I did it just as a memento of the people I spent time with. Never in my wildest dreams had I thought other people would be interested."

He added: "My parents sent me Hindu greetings cards so we cut them out and stuck them on the back, front and spine of book.

"I left it right next to my pile of blankets and the guards would ask 'what's that?' So I said 'it's my Bible'."

The exhibition at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow runs from July 18 until October 4.

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