Robben Island

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Robben Island
Robben Island Village
Robben Island Village
Robben Island is located in Western Cape
Robben Island
Robben Island
 Robben Island shown within Western Cape
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Country South Africa
Province Western Cape
Municipality City of Cape Town
Established {{#property:P571}}
 • Total 5.18 km2 (2.00 sq mi)
Population (2011)[1]
 • Total 116
 • Density 22/km2 (58/sq mi)
Racial makeup (2011)[1]
 • Black African 60.3%
 • Coloured 23.3%
 • White 13.8%
 • Other 2.6%
First languages (2011)[1]
 • Xhosa 37.9%
 • Afrikaans 35.3%
 • Zulu 15.5%
 • English 7.8%
 • Other 3.4%
PO box 7400
Type Cultural
Criteria iii, vi
Designated 1999 (23rd session)
Reference no. 916
State Party South Africa
Region Africa
File:Robben island from table mountain.jpg
Robben Island as viewed from Table Mountain. The view is roughly to the north–northwest. The distant sandy shore beyond disappears towards Saldanha Bay.
De Waal Battery on Robben Island

Robben Island (Afrikaans: Robbeneiland) is an island in Table Bay, 6.9 km west of the coast of Bloubergstrand, Cape Town, South Africa. The name is Dutch for "seal island." Robben Island is roughly oval in shape, 3.3 km long north-south, and 1.9 km wide, with an area of 5.07 km².[2] It is flat and only a few metres above sea level, as a result of an ancient erosion event. Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid. To date, three of the former inmates of Robben Island have gone on to become President of South Africa: Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe,[3] and current President Jacob Zuma.

Robben Island is both a South African National Heritage Site as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.[4][5]


File:AMH-2554-NA Map of Robben Island.jpg
Dutch map of the island, from 1731.

Since the end of the 17th century, Robben Island has been used for the isolation of mainly political prisoners. The Dutch settlers were the first to use Robben Island as a prison. Its first prisoner was probably Autshumato in the mid-17th century. 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.

After the British Royal Navy captured several Dutch East Indiamen at the battle of Saldanha Bay in 1781, a boat rowed out to meet the British warships. On board were the "kings of Ternate and Tidore, and the princes of the respective families". The Dutch had long held them on "Isle Robin", but then had moved them to Saldanha Bay.[6]

In 1806 the Scottish whaler 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, adjacent to the site of the present-day harbour named Murray's Bay Harbour which was constructed in 1939–40.[7][8]

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.[9] He drowned on the shores of Table Bay after escaping the prison.[10][11]

The island was also used as a leper colony and animal quarantine station.[12] Starting in 1845 lepers from the Hemel-en-Aarde (heaven and earth) leper colony near Caledon were moved to Robben Island when Hemel-en-Aarde was found unsuitable as a leper colony. Initially this was done on a voluntary basis and the lepers were free to leave the island if they so wished.[13] 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. Prior to 1892 an average of about 25 lepers a year were admitted to Robben Island, but in 1892 that number rose to 338, and in 1893 a further 250 were admitted.[13]

During the Second World War the island was fortified and BL 9.2-inch guns and 6-inch guns were installed as part of the defences for Cape Town.

Robben Island was used as a prison for political prisoners and convicted criminals from 1961. It was a maximum security prison for political prisoners until 1991. The medium security prison for criminal prisoners was closed in 1996.[14]

In the South African general election, 2009, the Democratic Alliance won the island.

Maritime peril

Robben Island and nearby Whale Rock[15] have been the nemeses of many a ship and its crew. 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 laden with gold coins earmarked 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.[citation needed] The gold today would be worth tens of millions of euros or US dollars. A few coins have washed ashore over the centuries but the treasure itself remains in the ocean. It is protected largely by the almost ceaseless and violent surf. Many other vessels have been wrecked around the island.


Today the island is a popular tourist destination and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1999. It is reached by ferry from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town and is open throughout the year, weather permitting, and tours of the island and prison are led by guides who were formerly prisoners there. Robben Island Museum (RIM) operates as a site or living museum. All the land on the island is owned by the State, with the exception of the island church.

Robben Island lighthouse

Jan van Riebeeck first set a navigation aid at the top of Fire Hill (now Minto Hill), the highest point on the island. Huge bonfires were lit at night to warn VOC ships of the rocks that surround the island. The current Robben Island lighthouse, built on Minto Hill in 1864,[16] is 18 metres (59 ft) high and was converted to electricity in 1938. It is the only South African lighthouse to utilise a flashing light instead of a revolving light.[citation needed] Its light is visible for 24 nautical miles.[17]

Moturu Kramat

The Moturu Kramat, a sacred site for Muslim pilgrimage on Robben Island, was built in 1969 to commemorate Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the Prince of Madura. Moturu, one of Cape Town's first imams, who was exiled to the island in the mid-1740s and died there in 1754. Muslim political prisoners would pay homage at the shrine before leaving the island.

Animal life

When the Dutch arrived in the area in 1652, the only large animals on the island were seals and birds, principally penguins. In 1654, the settlers released rabbits on the island to provide a ready source of meat for passing ships.[18] The original colony of African penguins on the island was completely exterminated by 1800. However the modern day island is once again an important breeding area for the species after a new colony established itself there in 1983.[19] The colony has grown to 13,000 and is now the third largest for the species. The penguins are easy to see close up in their natural habitat and are therefore a popular tourist attraction.

Around 1958, Lieutenant Peter Klerck, a naval officer serving on the island, introduced various animals. The following extract of an article, written by Michael Klerck who lived on the island from an early age, describes the fauna life there:[20]

My father, a naval officer at the time, with the sanction of Doctor Hey, director of Nature Conservation, turned an area into a nature reserve. A 'Noah's Ark' berthed in the harbour sometime in 1958. They stocked the island with tortoise, duck, geese, buck (which included Springbok, Eland, Steenbok, Bontebok and Fallow Deer), Ostrich and a few Wildebeest which did not last long. All except the fallow deer are indigenous to the Cape. Many animals are still there[21] including three species of tortoise—the most recently discovered in 1998—two Parrot Beaked specimens that have remained undetected until now. The leopard or mountain tortoises 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 (they are the only species in the world that can swim). Boats would lift them out of the sea in Table Bay and return them to us. None of the original 12 shipped over remain, and in 1995, four more were introduced—they seem to have more easily accepted their home as they are still residents. One resident brought across a large leopard tortoise discovered in a friend's garden in Newlands, Cape Town. He lived in our garden and grew big enough to climb over the wall and roam the island much like the sheep in Van Riebeeck's time. As children we were able to ride his great frame comfortably, as did some grown men. The buck and ostriches seemed equally happy and the ducks and Egyptian Geese were assigned a home in the old quarry, which had, some three hundred years before, supplied the dressed stone for the foundations of the Castle; at the time of my residence it bristled with fish. It has also been mentioned in Pointless. Recent reports in Cape Town newspapers show that 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 my father brought over all those years ago; the rabbits themselves have laid the island waste, stripping it of almost all ground vegetation. It looks almost like a desert. A reporter from the broadcasting corporation told me recently that they found the carcass of the last Bontebok.

There may be 25,000 rabbits on the island. Humans are hunting and culling the rabbits to reduce their number.[22]

List of former prisoners held at Robben Island

Former prison cells on Robben Island
File:Rock pile, Robben Island Prison.jpg
Rock pile started by Nelson Mandela and added to by former prisoners, one rock each, at reunion
File:Moturu Kramat.jpg
Muslim shrine on Robben Island

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "Main Place Robben Island". Census 2011. 
  2. "Avian Demography Unit: Robben Island". Department of Statistical Sciences, University of Cape Town.  line feed character in |publisher= at position 36 (help)
  3. "New S. Africa president sworn in". BBC News. 25 September 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-22. 
  4. "9/2/018/0004 - Robben Island, Table Bay". South African Heritage Resources Agency. Retrieved 16 September 2013. 
  5. "Robben Island". UNESCO. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  6. The New Annual Register, Or General Repository of History ..., (October 1781), Vol. 2, p.90.
  7. Peires, Jeffrey B. (1989). The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle Killing Movement of 1856–7. Indiana University Press. p. 301. ISBN 9780253205247. 
  8. Deacon, Harriet, ed. (1996). The Island: A History of Robben Island, 1488–1990. New Africa Books. pp. 4–5. ISBN 9780864862990. 
  9. Frederick Marryat. The Mission; or Scenes in Africa. London: Nick Hodson. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 
  10. "Christianity in Africa South of the Sahara: 19th Century Xhosa Christianity". Bethel University. Archived from the original on 14 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 
  11. Edwin Diale (1979). "Makana". African National Congress. Archived from the original on 2 June 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 
  12. Winston Churchill (1900). London to Ladysmith via Pretoria. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 Newman, George (1895). Prize essays on leprosy. London: The Society. p. 194.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "newman-194" defined multiple times with different content
  14. Chronology, Robben Island Museum website, retrieved 8 June 2013
  15. James Horsburgh (1852). The India Directory, Or Directions for Sailing to and from the East Indies, China, Australia and the Interjacent Ports. W. H. Allen & Co. p. 71. 
  16. William Henry Rosser, James Frederick Imray (1867). The Seaman's Guide to the Navigation of the Indian Ocean and China Sea. J. Imray & Son. p. 280. Retrieved 2008-10-04. 
  17. "Robben Island Lighthouse". Retrieved 29 October 2014. 
  18. George McCall Theal (1897). History of South Africa Under the Administration of the Dutch East India Company (1652 to 1795). Swan Sonnenschein. p. 442. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 
  19. Les Underhill. "Robben Island". Avian Demography Unit, University of Cape Town. Retrieved 2008-10-12. 
  20. Michael Klerck. "Robben Island: Childhood Memories—a personal reflection". Retrieved 2008-11-23. 
  21. No longer true as of 2008
  22. BBC News. Robben Island is 'under threat'. 31 October 2009.
  23. Sindiwe Magona (1 October 2012). From Robben Island to Bishop's Court: The Biography of Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane. David Philip. ISBN 978-0-86486-738-4. 
  24. "John Ya Otto Nankudhu passes on". New Era. NAMPA. 22 June 2011. 

Further reading

External links