Robben Island

The Robben Island is an island situated in the Table Bay, 6.9 km on the West coast of Bloubergstrand.

Robben Island is flat and just a few metres above sea level, which is a result of an ancient erosion event.

The island is composed of Precambrian metamorphic rocks belonging to the Malmesbury Group.

It is roughly oval in shape, 3.3 km long North-South, and 1.9 km wide, with an area of 5.07 km².

Robben Island is internationally known for the fact that Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on this island for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid.

Kgalema Motlanthe, who also served as President of South Africa, spent 10 years on Robben Island as a political prisoner, as did the President of South Africa Jacob Zuma.

Robben Island was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1999. It has also been declared:-

  • A South African National Monument in 1996
  • A National Museum in 1996
  • An Associated institution of the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in 1997
  • A National Heritage Site in 2006

For nearly 400 years, Robben Island, situated only about 12 kilometres from Cape Town’s city center, was a place of banishment, exile , isolation and imprisonment. It was there at Robben Island that rulers sent those regarded as political troublemakers, social outcasts and the unwanted.

Robben Island – The History

People lived on Robben Island many thousands of years ago, when the sea channel between the Island and the Cape mainland was not covered with water. Since the Dutch settled at the Cape in the mid 1600s, Robben Island has been used primarily as a prison.

Robben Island was used for the isolation of mainly political prisoners since the end of the 17th century and it was first use by the Dutch settlers as a prison.

Its first prisoner was perhaps Autshumao, a Strandloper leader who worked as an interpreter for the Europeans. Among its early permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia, and the leader of the mutiny on the slave ship, Meermin - an 18th-century Dutch cargo ship.

In 1806 John Murray opened a whaling station at a sheltered bay on the North-eastern shore of the island which became known as Murray's Bay.

After a failed uprising at Grahamstown in 1819, the fifth of the Xhosa Wars, the British colonial government sentenced African leader Makanda Nxele to life imprisonment on the island.

Unfortunately, Makanda Nxele drowned on the shores of Table Bay after escaping the prison.

It was a maximum security prison for political prisoners until 1991. The medium security prison for criminal prisoners was closed in 1996.

Robben Island has not only been used as a prison. It was a training and defense station in World War II (1939-1945) and a hospital for leprosy patients, and the mentally and chronically ill (1846-1931). In the 1840s, Robben Island was chosen for a hospital because it was both secure (isolating dangerous cases) and healthy (providing a good environment for cure).

During this time, political and common-law prisoners were still kept on Robben Island. As there was no cure and little effective treatment available for leprosy, mental illness and other chronic illnesses in the 1800s. Robben Island was a kind of prison for the hospital patients too.

There were an average of about 25 lepers admitted yearly to Robben Island, but in 1892 that number rose to 338, and in 1893 an additional of 250 were admitted.

In April 1891 the cornerstones for 11 new buildings to house lepers were laid.

After the introduction of the Leprosy Repression Act in May 1892 , admission was no longer voluntary and the movement of the lepers was restricted.

During the South African General Election in 2009, the Democratic Alliance won the island.

Maritime peril

Robben Island have been the destruction of many ships and crews. The surf of the open Atlantic Ocean thunders continuously at its margins and any vessel wrecked on the reefs offshore is soon beaten to pieces and disappears.

In the latter half of the 17th century a Dutch ship overloaded with gold coins set aside for the payment of the salaries of employees of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) disintegrated on these reefs a short distance offshore, in relatively shallow but very restless waters.

Today, the gold would be worth tens of millions of Euros or US dollars. Only a few coins have been washed ashore over the centuries but the treasure itself remains in the ocean.

It is largely protected by the never ending and violent surf. Various ships have been wrecked around the island.

Robben Island Today

Since 1997 Robben Island has been a museum. The museum on the Island is a dynamic institution, which acts as a focal point of South African heritage. The Robben Island Museum runs educational programmes for schools, youths and adults, facilitates tourism development, conducts ongoing research related to Robben Island and fulfils an archiving function Today the island is a popular tourist destination and it was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999.

It is reached by ferries from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town and it is open throughout the year.

Depending of the weather, tours and visits of the island and prison are led by guides . These guides were once prisoners there. The Robben Island Museum (RIM) operates as a site or living museum.

The Robben Island Museum has a dedicated Education Department allowing the Educational tours. Among its many activities is the facilitation of subsidized school tours.

The whole Island is owned by the State, excepting the island church.

Robben Island lighthouse

Jan van Riebeeck , who was a Dutch colonial administrator and founder of Cape Town, first set a navigation aid at the top of Fire Hill which is the highest point on the island. It is now called Minto Hill .

In the past they use to light up huge bonfires at night to warn VOC ships ( ships named with the Dutch East India Company; Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie ) of the rocks that surround the island.

The current Robben Island lighthouse, was built on Minto Hill in 1864. It is of 18 metres (59 ft) high and it was converted to electricity in 1938. It is the only South African lighthouse to utilize a flashing light instead of a revolving light Its light is visible for 24 nautical miles.

Moturu Kramat

The Moturu Kramat is a sacred site for Muslim pilgrimage . it is found on Robben Island and it was built in 1969 to commemorate Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the Prince of Madura.

Sayed Abdurahman Moturu was one of Cape Town's first imams, who was exiled to the island in the mid 1740s and he died there fourteen years after, in 1754.

Muslim political prisoners would pay homage at the shrine before leaving the island.

Animal Life on the Island

The Dutch settled on the island in 1652. At that time the only large animals on the island were seals and birds, principally penguins.

Two years later, the settlers released rabbits on the island to provide a ready source of meat for passing ships. By the end of the 1800 , the original colony of the African Penguins on the island was completely exterminated.

However , in 1983 , once again there is an important breeding area for the species after a new colony established itself there. The new penguins colony has grown to 13,000 and is now the third largest for the species.

The penguins are a popular tourist attractions as they are easily found and pictured in their natural habitat.

During the early age, around 1958, there existed fauna life there. Various type of animals such as tortoise, duck, geese, buck (which included Springbok, Eland, Steenbok, Bontebok and Fallow Deer), Ostrich were introduced to the island .

Many animals are still there including three species of tortoise and the most recently discovered , in 1998 , two Parrot Beaked specimens that have remained unheard of until now.

The leopard or mountain tortoises, who are the only species in the world that can swim, might have suspected the past terror; perhaps they had no intention of being a part of a future infamy, but they often attempted the swim back to the mainland .

Boats would lift them out of the sea in Table Bay and return them to the Island. In the past , a total of 12 were shipped to the Island , but none of them survived. In 1995, four more were introduced and they seem to have more easily accepted their home as they are still residents.

Recent reports in Cape Town newspapers show that there is a lack of upkeep, a lack of culling, and the proliferation of rabbits on the island has led to the total devastation of the wildlife.

There remains today almost none of the animals stated above . There may be 25,000 rabbits on the island and they are stripping off almost all ground vegetation. It looks almost like a desert.

Very recently, the carcass of the last Bontebok was discovered.. The Rabbits are being hunted and culled to reduce their numbers.