Robben Island, a tiny island is a significant part of South Africa’s history going back to the age of exploration. The Island sits in Table Bay about 7km from the north of Cape Town beaches, South Africa. In its long history, the Island has served as stopping point for passing ships, a place of imprisonment, a hospital for leper colony and a military base over the different period time periods. In the later years, Robben Island is noted as the place for imprisonment of political activists among which Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment.

A brief History

The name Robben is taken from the Dutch meaning seals which were once plentiful around the island. Discovered by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488, the island was used by Portuguese sailors as a stopping point and refuelling station. In the subsequent years, the Dutch and British Navy stationed at the Island building sheds and shelter at different period of time. The Dutch settlers were the first to use the Island as prison to Imprison political leaders from various Dutch Colonies.

During the 19th century, the island served as hospital to people suffering from leprosy and mental illness because of the serene environment and being away from the society. The island also saw fortifying heavily during the world war with construction of military structures and improving the harbour.

From 1961, the South African government used the island as prison for political prisoners and other convicted criminals. With the end of apartheid government, the maximum-security prison closed in 1991 and medium security prison for non-political prisoners closed in the 1996 eventually converting into a museum.

In 1997, the South African government declared the Robben Island as a National monument and in 1999, it was added under UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The Island

The Island became a stopping point because of the natural water springs that provided refuelling to the sailors and being away from the mainland it was safe from wild animals. Described as the Island of Exiles, for centuries the Island was remote inaccessible place. Today, Robben Island is survived by the 17th century lime quarry, the tomb of Hadije Kramat who died in 1755, 19th century ‘village’ administrative buildings including a chapel and parsonage and a small lighthouse.

The main centre of Robben Island is a small village and mostly everything from milk to building materials is ferried over from Cape Town Harbour. Robben Island generate its own electricity and obtains its water from nine boreholes. Most of the building found are dilapidated World War II structures and the stark and functional maximum-security prison of the Apartheid period.

Wildlife and Conservation

The only large animals that found in Island when Dutch arrived are seals and African Penguins. After the introduction of rabbits by Dutch as a ready meat for the passing ships. This resulted in drastic change of Island vegetation as the rabbit numbers grew more. The African Penguins which were exterminated by 1800 were reintroduced in 1983. Since then, the African Penguin’s population increased until 2004 after which the population is declining due to the extensive fishing which are being regulated now. The extensive rabbit population which threatens the Island are also being hunted down to conserve the ecology and the historic structures of the island.

With the history of over 500 years, Robben Island stands as the striking testimony to the endurance and courage in the face of apartheid regiment and makes a must-see fragment of South African history.