South Africa’s victory over England in the rugby World Cup Final on Saturday represented an iconic moment in that nation’s history, coinciding as it did with the tenure of South Africa’s first ever black captain. It is probably quite hard for most of you to understand the significance of this, but to help you do so, I recommend (if you have not already done so) that you watch a film called Invictus, which I myself did on Saturday evening, only half a dozen hours or so after the coverage of this year’s final had finished. Invictus tells the tale of the early years of Nelson Mandela’s presidency of South Africa, just four years after he had been released from 27 years in prison for anti-apartheid offences. Specifically, it tells of his relationship with the South African rugby team, the Springboks, as they attempted to win the World Cup in 1995 on home soil. I am sure you know all this, but until the Mandela years, apartheid in South Africa had seen the segregation of blacks from whites at all levels of society, and had ensured the rule of the minority white population since the Second World War. The film shows that Mandela was uniquely equipped to deal with his country’s greatest issue, a large black majority who wanted revenge against the whites who oppressed them, and a fearful white minority who worried that Mandela’s government would let them take it. The home World Cup in 1995 represented one of Mandela’s first major challenges, because rugby was a white game and the majority of the country not only did not play it, but despised it for all it stood. You may have seen over the weekend what happened next: South Africa won on home soil, Mandela appeared as a black man in a springbok rugby short to present the cup to a white Francois Pienaar, in a show of unity and triumph over adversity which propelled South Africa back into the world’s consciousness and affection. The fight for equality was far from over, but it had begun in the most brilliant of ways.
During the film, in the run up to the World Cup in 1995, Mandela invites the Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, to tea. He tells him about his 27 years in jail, and about his 18 years in prison on Robben Island, where he spent his time in a tiny cell 8ft long by 7ft wide. During the day, he (and fellow prisoners) split rocks as hard labour. He was only allowed one visitor and one letter every six months. It would have defeated him, he said, apart from his knowledge of one poem, a poem written by a man called William Earnest Henley in 1875 called Invictus. Invictus is the Latin word for “unconquered” and the poem, a famous one, goes like this:
Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbow’d.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Earnest Henley, the writer of this poem, had himself an interesting story. At the age of 12, he suffered tuberculosis of the bone which resulted ultimately in the amputation of his left leg at the age of 20. A few years later, his right foot also became diseased and he was advised that it too would need to be amputated. However, he refused the first diagnosis, found a top doctor, and over the next three years in hospital gradually his foot got better. It was during this time that he wrote a collection of poems called In Hospital, one of which was the poem you have just heard, and which Nelson Mandela used to recite in his tiny cell on Robben Island.
Like Mandela, and indeed like the South African rugby team and their current captain, there is also inspiration we can draw from William Earnest Henley. His life was never easy – he was ill for much of it and he died at the comparatively young age of 53, after a fall from a railway carriage triggered his latent tuberculosis, which ultimately finished him off. As it happens, he is buried only 14 miles away just east of Sandy, in a village called Cockayne Hatley. He had also lost a beloved daughter, who died at the age of only five and is buried alongside him. Yet he had retained a great group of friends, which included Robert Louis Stevenson, the writer of Treasure Island, who used Henley as his inspiration for the character Long John Silver, and he retained a great sense of spirit and fun. According to Stevenson’s stepson, despite all his hard times, Henley was “jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music; he had an unimaginable fire and vitality; he swept one off one’s feet”.
The message from the poem Invictus, from Henley’s own life, from Mandela’s years in prison, and from the recent Springbok triumph, is that fortitude comes from within. It is worth remembering this as we enter the month of Movember, a month which is so emblematic to our school, and which aims to highlight men’s health issues, mental and physical, to as wide an audience as possible. It is a month when we must show that anything is possible, and I wish you well for it.