Jack Mapanje – poet and prisoner of conscience

Extract from a letter written on toilet tissue paper by Jack Mapanje to David Kerr whilst a prisoner in Mikuyu Prison in Malawi

Extract from a letter written by Jack Mapanje to David Kerr whilst a prisoner in Mikuyu Prison in Malawi (Jack Mapanje Archive, MAP/6/3/43)

Within Special Collections and Archives we hold the papers of a number of contemporary poets. One of that number is Malawian poet Jack Mapanje. In 1987 he was imprisoned for 4 years for critical views of the Malawian government expressed in his first published collection of poems. Since then he has had several more works published alongside a career as an academic in Malawi and the UK. In the Mapanje (Jack) Archive we hold material relating to his poetic works, items relating to his academic career in both Malawi and the UK, and perhaps most interestingly, correspondence written during and after his time held as prisoner of conscience.

Jack Mapanje was born in 1944 in Malawi, where he was educated before he studied at universities in Malawi and the UK. He then went on to lecture in the Department of English at Chancellor College, University of Malawi. In 1983 he was awarded a PHD in linguistics after study at University College London, he then returned to work at the University of Malawi.

During this time Jack Mapanje witnessed at first hand the regime of Hastings Banda and began to write poetry, some of which reflected his despair at the political situation. His first collection, Of Chameleons and Gods, was published in the UK in 1981. In 1985 the Malawian government withdrew the book from circulation without reason, and in 1987 Mapanje was arrested and imprisoned without trial in Mikuyu Prison.

Whilst detained he wrote a series of letters to David Kerr, an English colleague and friend who also worked at the University of Malawi. Their content tells of the conditions inside the prison and Mapanje’s thoughts on the campaign to release him. The harshness of prison conditions meant that paper and letters had to be smuggled into and out of the prison. This included using clean toilet paper as a medium on which to write letters.

One letter written on toilet paper survives as part of our collection (MAP/6/3/43). This particular letter is dated the 10/1, in it he mentions prisoners released the previous day and discusses possible tactics and options open to his contacts fighting for his release.

Letter written on toilet paper tissue by Jack Mapanje to David Kerr whilst a prisoner in Mikuyu Prison in Malawi

Extract from a letter written by Jack Mapanje to David Kerr whilst a prisoner in Mikuyu Prison in Malawi (Jack Mapanje Archive, MAP/6/3/43)

Whilst he was in prison his first collection, Of Chameleons and Gods won the Rotterdam Poetry International Award and the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. These helped to highlight his plight and political oppression in Malawi to an international audience. At the same time there was a campaign for his release coordinated by Amnesty International which involved several well-known writers and activists including Harold Pinter and Noam Chomsky.

He was eventually released in May 1991, after this he and his family moved to the UK. In the years since he has had a successful career as an academic with several universities and has carried on writing. The collection of poems he largely wrote whilst in Mikuyu Prison, ‘The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison’, was published in 1993. More recent books include The ‘Last of the Sweet Bannanas: new and selected poems’ and ‘The Beasts of Nalunga’. He has edited other works and his memoir, ‘And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night’ was published in 2011.

Front cover of ‘Beast of Nalunga’, showing the head of a crocodile with its mouth open

Front cover of ‘Beast of Nalunga’, published by Bloodaxe Books in 2007 (Bloodaxe Books Collection, Bloodaxe 821.94 MAP)

A catalogue of Jack Mapanje’s papers held at Newcastle University Library can be found here on our Archives Hub pages and a small selection of digitised images from the archive can be found on Collections Captured.

America enters World War One

6th April 2017 marks the centenary of America entering World War I. Until this point President Woodrow Wilson had outwardly shown a neutral stance whilst allowing the banks to make loans to Britain and France. At this point the majority of American citizens were of European origin, descendants of immigrants who were of previous generations who showed little interest in the war.

However, early in 1917 two major events occurred leading President Wilson to break off diplomatic relations with Germany in the first instance, and made a speech to Congress on the 2nd April (copy of speech available at WR 163 ‘America and Freedom being the statements of President Wilson on the War with a Preface by Rt. Hon. Viscount Grey’).

America declared war on Germany four days later.

The first event which led to this was the increased German aggression shown over the Atlantic. Here, all boats heading towards Europe, no matter the nationality or purpose of vessel, were targets for sinking by U-boats.

The second was the incident of the Zimmermann telegram – a communication from Germany to Mexico which proposed a military alliance between the two countries should America join the War. However, this telegram was intercepted by British intelligence.

At the same time in Europe, there were contrasting emotions from two brothers towards the war and America’s involvement.

George Macaulay Trevelyan was based in Italy commanding an ambulance unit for the British Red Cross, and in a letter to his father he expressed his feelings on America entering the war.

Above extracts are taken from a letter in the George Otto Trevelyan Archive GOT 151/1/1 – GOT 151/1/2

Letter from the George Otto Trevelyan Archive GOT 151/1/1 – GOT 151/1/2

SSir!

 I am going out to shake the hand of an American citizen, the first I can find in this Eternal City, on the occasion of his country breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany.

I shall also leave my card at the American Embassy.

My only regret is that by a strange chance I was in New York during the Italians Days? of May 1915 and in Rome during the present American crisis.

I saw our Ambassador yesterday and he told me that he felt sure the war would not go on till next year; he evidently thought the germans were in a bad way unless their submarine campaign can force us to compromise with them. If the war does end this year the affairs of our unit on which H. E. puts a high value, will be relatively easy.

I return to the front tomorrow

Your affectionate son

George Trevelyan
(Extract from GOT 151)

On the other hand, George’s brother Charles Philips Trevelyan, Liberal MP and Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Education was against the war.  He had already resigned his post and been a founder member of the Union of Democratic Control – a pressure group containing MPs from both the Liberal and Labour parties and included various influential figures such as author Norman Angell and journalist E. D. Morel. They were against conscription, and wanted more negotiations.

During a speech at Bradford, Charles spoke about the number of casualties and America’s position in the war at that time. Three months later at Hammersmith he spoke about America’s entry into the war.

Above extracts are taken from a letter in the Charles Philips Trevelyan Archive, CPT 46/14 - CPT 46/15

Notes for a speech from Charles Philips Trevelyan Archive, CPT 46/14 – CPT 46/15

Word peace has been spoken
been for many days and months
That is the beginning of the end – 

Only question whether several millions more men killed or maimed before national governments begin negotiations.
……………………..
Present situation
Great change in last month
Began with President Wilson asking belligerents to state terms.
When I think of the abuse levelled against me and my friends –

For 18 months demanding negotiations- negotiated note a dictated pence –
For 18 months for government to state terms.

Cannot ignore President Wilson – voice reverberates throughout world – as the megaphone of will of peaceful millions of America.
(Extracts from CPT 46/14 – CPT 46/15)

At the time of this speech there were eight million dead as a result of the war.

Extract taken from a letter in the Charles Philips Trevelyan Archive, CPT 46/56

Extract taken from a letter in the Charles Philips Trevelyan Archive, CPT 46/56

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Entry of America 
Strike member U.D.C right way and wrong way to go to war. Pres. Wilson made nation confidant – every step of policy overt – acted slowly and deliberately laying down his policy in magnificent declarations. Soberly and with full knowledge. 

Contrast to every European nation. The victim and tool of secret coteries of Kings – ministers- or bureaucrats.

Trevelyan then continues about America bringing a “Breath of healthy idealism to blow away the over…..? ambitions overlaid the finer of our national objects” and wanting nothing from the War.

Exactly the same things in mind as in his previous utterances”. We of U.D.C. cannot ask for peace on better terms because what we have advocated for two years”
(Extracts from CPT 46/56)

With America’s involvement the war lasted another 19 months, and had been dubbed the war to end all wars. However, Charles Philips Trevelyan’s anti-war stance contributed to his rejection from his constituency and he lost his seat in 1918. Four years later, after changing his political allegiance to the Labour Party, he became M.P. for Newcastle Central becoming President of the Board of Education in 1924. The Union of Democratic Control was eventually disbanded in the 1960s.