Nelson Mandela's signature (catalogue reference DO 119/1478)

04 March 2013

To mark World Book Day on 7 March 2013, The National Archives reveals a personal letter written by Nelson Mandela while he was in prison over 50 years ago, thanking the British Ambassador for sending him books.

The letter has been made available to view online for the first time as part of a selection of records on Nelson Mandela's arrest and trial. 

The letter reveals gratitude and appreciation for the books which he describes as a 'valuable present'. They were sent by Sir John Maud, British Ambassador in South Africa, and his 'friend in England', David Astor, journalist and former editor of The Observer, who spearheaded the quest to give books to Nelson Mandela in prison.

'Honour and respect'

Simon Demissie, Records Specialist at The National Archives said: 'Mandela's handwritten letter is a great example of the honour and respect which he spent many years struggling for. We are delighted to have this preserved in the collection at The National Archives and to make it available online so that people across the globe can appreciate this unique piece of history from the man himself.'

The letter, dated 14 September 1962, is contained within formerly secret government papers (DO 119/1478) which reveal how Astor and Maud used their connections to reassure the authorities in South Africa that the books sent were not of a subversive nature. Otherwise there was a danger that the books would not reach Mandela as the authorities in South Africa would be 'obliged to scrutinise slowly and in great detail'. 

Also contained in file DO 119/1478 and FO 924/1507 are the details of Nelson Mandela's trial where he represented himself, and comments from the British Embassy on the delivery of Nelson Mandela's opening remarks.

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