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Robben Island © Brian Snelson/Flickr
Robben Island © Brian Snelson/Flickr
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A Brief History Of Robben Island, Cape Town

Picture of Lee-Shay Collison
Updated: 24 September 2016
Robben Island is a small landmass located 7 km off the coast of Cape Town in Table Bay. The island is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has served as a whaling station, a leper colony, and most notably as a prison, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his 27 year incarceration before being instated president.
Entrance to the Robben Island Prison – now a museum
Entrance to the Robben Island Prison – now a museum | © April Killingsworth

Robben Island (robben is derived from Dutch, meaning seal) was named after the large number of seals that once populated its shores. When the Dutch arrived at the Cape in 1652, they began using the island as a port and grazing station for sheep and cattle. However the island’s isolation from the mainland did not go unnoticed, and eventually, convicts and political prisoners — including kings, princes and religious leaders from the East Indies — were banished there. When the British annexed the Cape in 1806, they continued this practice and established a whaling station on the island which lasted until 1820.

In 1845, the penal colony was moved to the mainland and replaced with a colony of lepers, who were soon joined by other ‘undesirables’, including the mentally-ill, paupers, alcoholics and the chronically ill. After 1931, the sickly were sent to hospitals in Cape Town and the island became a military outpost during World War II. Artillery was installed and the government built roads, a power station, houses and an airstrip.

Graveyard of the leper colony
Graveyard of the leper colony | © Ross Huggett/Flickr

In 1961, the South African apartheid government opened a maximum security prison for political prisoners and convicted criminals, including Nelson Mandela and many other anti-apartheid activists. The prison was notorious for its harsh conditions where prisoners were subjected to grueling tasks, such as breaking rocks into gravel in the courtyard, exposed to the elements. However the prison failed to crush the spirit of Mandela and his comrades, who used their time to educate themselves and debate a wide-range of topics. In 1991, all political prisoners were released, followed by the common-law prisoners five years later.

Today Robben Island is a stark reminder of the apartheid government and a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, suffering and injustice. The Maximum Security Prison is now a museum where daily tours are conducted by ex-political prisoners. Every year thousands of tourists visit the island to understand South Africa’s past and view the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela spent countless hours.

Robben Island prison cell
Robben Island prison cell | © joepyrek/Flickr
Robben Island Prison Tour
Robben Island Prison Tour | ©Meraj Chhaya/Flickr

Weather permitting, visitors take the ferry to the island from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront.The boat ride takes 30 minutes and offers great views of the coastline and Table Mountain. If you’re lucky, you might spot a school of friendly dolphins in the waves! The entire tour lasts three-and-a-half hours including travel time.

View of Robben Island from the Nelson Mandela Gateway ferry
View of Robben Island from the Nelson Mandela Gateway ferry | © Harvey Barrison/Flickr