Robben Island
Robben Island
Cultural South Africa Africa Western Cape Province

The buildings of Robben Island bear eloquent testimony to its sombre history, and at the same time symbolize the triumph of the human spirit, of freedom, and of democracy over oppression.

Robben Island is a low-lying rocky outcrop situated 9.3km north of the mainland. It has a Mediterranean climate, and is exposed to violent winter gales and tides that make its northern and western sides virtually uninhabitable. Settlement has concentrated on the southern and eastern coasts of the island. It is characterized by discontinuity, resulting from its episodic history. A determining factor has been the lack of drinking water. The earliest features of human occupation are the abandoned quarries for slate (on the south of the island) and limestone (in the centre), which date from the mid-17th century.

Robben Island was possibly occupied by humans before the arrival of the Europeans, as it is the summit of a submerged mountain, linked by an undersea saddle to the coast of Table Bay. The Cape Peninsula, with Robben Island, fell halfway on sea voyages between Europe and the Orient. The first Europeans to land there were probably members of Vasco de Gama's fleet, who stopped there in 1498 in search of shelter and supplies. They were followed by a growing number of ships in the next two centuries, as it offered food, drinkable water, and security from attack by the indigenous people of the Cape.

The Dutch East India Company first became aware of the potential of the Cape of Good Hope in the mid-17th century, and in 1657 Jan van Riebeeck set up a colony there. They were joined in 1688 by French Huguenots. The colonists began a vigorous policy of enslavement of the indigenous peoples and brought them there from other parts of Africa;the population was also augmented with Muslims deported from the East Indies and elsewhere in the Orient. The potential of the island as a prison was realized by van Riebeeck. First, slaves and prisoners of war were sent there, to cut stone and burn seashells for lime for building the settlement of Cape Town. When the Cape was captured by the British from the Dutch in 1795 and 1806, they continued to use the island as a prison, for military prisoners (mostly white), political prisoners and criminals (mostly black). A tenth of the prisoners were women, but they were transferred in 1835 to a Cape Town prison. This is the nucleus of the existing administrative area, known as 'The Village'. Some of the buildings, such as the clubhouse (formerly the Medical Superintendent's House) of 1840 and the former Anglican parsonage have retained good contemporary detailing inside and outside. The Anglican Church, built with convict labour in 1841, is an early example of Cape Gothic style, plastered and painted white on the exterior. The island prison was closed in 1846 and a general infirmary was established, to receive chronically sick, insane and lepers and relieve pressure on mainland hospitals. The small lighthouse on Minto's Hill in the southern part of the island was built in 1864. Between the village and the harbour slightly to the north known as Murray's Bay there is the small Church of the Good Shepherd (generally known as the Lepers' Church), built by the lepers themselves in 1895 to the designs of the distinguished architect Sir Herbert Baker. Surrounding it are leper graves, now half hidden in the grass. Robben Island becoming the main leper colony in the Cape, with over 1,000 inmates. This was finally to close in 1931.

Plans to turn the island into a holiday resort foundered with the approach of the Second World War, and it was declared to be 'reserved for military purposes' in 1936. It became the first point of defence against an attack on Table Bay, equipped with harbour facilities and heavy coastal artillery. After the war it continued in use for training, and in 1951 was taken over by the South African Marine Corps and then the South African Navy. In 1959 the island was claimed by the Prisons Department as a maximum security prison for political prisoners sentenced by the Apartheid regime, as well as ordinary criminals, all of them black. The present harbour at Murray's Bay was built during the Second World War, along with extensive fortifications and other military structures. Construction of the maximum security prison of the apartheid period began in the 1960s.

The most celebrated of the prisoners on Robben Island was Nelson Mandela, who was incarcerated there for some 20 years. The last political prisoners left the island in 1991 and the prison closed down finally in 1996;since that time it has been developed as a museum.