Robben Island

Published on 27 August 2023 at 18:00

"Robben Island": Small as the island off the coast of Cape Town is - barely 3.5 km long and almost 2 km wide - it is world-famous and infamous. For over 400 years, Robben Island was used to imprison and exile individuals, with Nelson Mandela being its most famous prisoner.

The history of Robben Island goes beyond Mandela's imprisonment. Discovered by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century, it wasn't long before the first prisoners found themselves confined to its shores.

In 1488, Portuguese explorer Bartholomeus Dias arrived in Table Bay, simultaneously discovering Robben Island. From that moment on, the Portuguese used it as a supply point for the discovery ships en route to the East. When Jan van Riebeeck arrived in the Cape in 1652, he established the first European trading post in South Africa, which would eventually become Cape Town. Robben Island was designated as a refreshment station for the VOC's discovery ships. Seals, penguins, and turtles were hunted for fresh meat to be carried aboard these ships. Interestingly, the island's name, "Robben Island," was coined by Dutch explorers due to its seal population.

The VOC also used Robben Island as a prison for unruly sailors from Cape Town. The frigid waters surrounding the island, caused by a cold sea current, made escape nearly impossible, with only three prisoners managing to survive. Among them, Autshumato was the first prisoner, exiled to the island for stealing cattle confiscated from European settlers. Autshumato was also one of the few prisoners who successfully escaped from the island.


Robben Island served as a prison for political prisoners from the mid-17th century during the VOC era until 1996 when the last prisoners were released. In 1959, the island was transformed into a maximum-security prison and, during the apartheid era, housed numerous anti-apartheid activists, including Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela spent his initial years after his 1962 conviction in Pretoria Local Prison. On June 13, 1964, he was transferred to Robben Island, where he would spend the next 18 years of his life, confined to a cell barely 2 by 2 meters in size, separated from non-political prisoners. Alongside other political prisoners, he endured mental and physical abuse by the guards, along with gruelling daily labour, including stone-cutting in a limestone quarry that severely damaged Mandela's eyesight. He was often placed in solitary confinement for smuggling in newspaper clippings.


To improve prison conditions, the inmates frequently resorted to hunger strikes and work stoppages. Mandela, along with four other anti-apartheid leaders, formed the 'High Organ,' representing all political prisoners on the island. They initiated the 'University of Robben Island,' where prisoners gave lectures within their areas of expertise, fostering knowledge exchange. Through the principle of "each one has to teach one," highly educated prisoners passed knowledge to those less educated. Although the guards were prohibited from discussing politics, prisoners sometimes managed to communicate while working in the lime mine.

Conditions began to improve in 1967, with black prisoners receiving long trousers instead of shorts, improved food quality, and permission to engage in activities like football.

Despite global support and a United Nations appeal for his release, Mandela remained incarcerated. In 1982, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. He was finally freed from Victor Verster Prison in Paarl on February 11, 1990, where he had his own 'house' within the prison walls and enjoyed relatively more freedom. In 1994, he became South Africa's first black president. In 1991, the last political prisoners were released from Robben Island, and in 1996, the last criminals were transferred, leading to the prison's closure.

After the prison's closure, Robben Island became accessible to the public in 1997. The island now receives over 200,000 visitors annually. In 1999, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site. Today, it functions as a museum, drawing visitors from around the world eager to learn about its history and its role in the anti-apartheid struggle. The island stands as a symbol of "the triumph of the human spirit over adversity."

Visitors can join guided tours of the island, including a visit to the prison where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held, as well as other historically significant locations. These tours are led by former inmates, who share their experiences and insights. To arrange a visit to Robben Island, you can book a tour through the Robben Island Museum, with tours departing from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town. Tours operate daily, weather permitting, with a duration of approximately 3.5 hours, for more information contact Maîté Iphupho.

Additionally, the museum offers audio tours in multiple languages and self-guided tours for those who prefer to explore the island at their own pace.


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