Robben Island: Wikis


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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Robben Island*
UNESCO World Heritage Site

SafrikaIMG 8414.JPG
Prison buildings on Robben Island. Table Mountain is visible 15 km in the background
State Party  South Africa
Type Cultural
Criteria iii, vi
Reference 916
Region** Africa
Coordinates 33°48′24″S 18°21′58″E / 33.806734°S 18.366222°E / -33.806734; 18.366222Coordinates: 33°48′24″S 18°21′58″E / 33.806734°S 18.366222°E / -33.806734; 18.366222
Inscription history
Inscription 1999  (23rd Session)
* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.

Robben Island (Afrikaans Robbeneiland) is an island in Table Bay, seven kilometres off the coast of 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. [1] It is flat and only a few metres above sea level, as a result of an ancient erosion event. The island is composed of Precambrian metamorphic rocks belonging to the Malmesbury Group. It is of particular note as it was here that future South African President and Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela and future South African President Kgalema Motlanthe,[2] alongside many other political prisoners, spent decades imprisoned during the apartheid era.



Since the end of the 17th century, Robben Island has been used to isolate certain people—mainly prisoners—and amongst its first permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia. 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 .[3] He drowned on the shores of Table Bay after escaping the prison.[4][5]

The island was also used as a leper colony and animal quarantine station.[6] Starting in 1845 lepers from the Hemel-en-Aarde 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.[7] 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.[7]

During the Second World War, the island was fortified and guns were installed as part of the defences for Cape Town.

Maritime peril

Robben Island as viewed from Table Mountain. The view is roughly to the north-northwest. The distant sandy shore beyond disappears towards Saldanha Bay.

Robben Island and nearby Whale Rock[8] have been the nemesis 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 1600s 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 pounds sterling or U.S. 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.


Robben Island lighthouse

Robben Island
South Africa

Jan van Riebeeck first set a navigation aid atop 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,[9] 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.[10]

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, 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 in order to provide a ready source of meat for passing ships.[11] 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.[12] The colony has grown to 13,000 and is now the third biggest 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 was born on the island, describes the fauna life there:[13]

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[14] 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.

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 250,000 rabbits on the island; they are being hunted and culled to reduce their numbers.[15]

List of former prisoners held at Robben Island

Former prison cells on Robben Island
  • Autshumato, one of the first freedom fighters against colonialism
  • Dennis Brutus, former activist and poet
  • Patrick Chamusso, former activist of the African National Congress
  • Laloo Chiba, former accused at Little Rivonia Trial
  • Eddie Daniels, author and activist
  • Jerry Ekandjo, Namibian politician
  • Nceba Faku, former Metro Mayor of Port Elizabeth
  • Petrus Iilonga, Namibian trade unionist, freedom fighter and politician
  • Ahmed Kathrada, former Rivonia Trialist and long-serving prisoner
  • Billy Nair, former Rivonia Trialist and ANC/SACP leader
  • Langalibalele, one of the first freedom fighters against colonialism
  • Mosiuoa Lekota, imprisoned in 1974, President and Leader of the Congress of the People
  • Mac Maharaj, former accused at Little Rivonia Trial
  • Nelson Mandela, African National Congress leader and former President of South Africa
  • Chief Maqoma, former chief who died on the island in 1873
  • Makana, one of the first freedom fighters against colonialism
  • Michael Matsobane, leader of Young African Religious Movement. Sentenced at Bethal in 1979; released by PW Botha in 1987.
  • Jeff Masemola, the first prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment in the apartheid era
  • Amos Masondo, current Mayor of Johannesburg
  • Govan Mbeki, father of former President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki. Govan was sentenced to life in 1963 but was released from Robben Island in 1987 by PW Botha
  • Wilton Mkwayi, former accused at Little Rivonia Trial
  • Murphy Morobe, Soweto Uprising student leader
  • Sayed Adurohman Moturu, the Muslim Iman who was exiled on the island and died there in 1754
  • Griffiths Mxenge, a South African Lawyer and member of the African National Congress
  • M.D. Naidoo, a South African lawyer and member of the African National Congress
  • John Nkosi Serving life but released by PW Botha in 1987
  • Nongqawuse, the Xhosa prophet responsible for the Cattle Killing
  • Maqana Nxele, former Xhosa prophet who drowned while trying to escape
  • [George Peake]
  • John Nyathi Pokela, co-founder and former chairman of the PAC
  • Joe Seremane, current chairperson of the Democratic Alliance.
  • Tokyo Sexwale, businessman and aspirant leader of the African National Congress
  • Walter Sisulu, former ANC struggle hero
  • Robert Sobukwe, former leader of the PAC
  • Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, Namibian politician
  • Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa and leader of the African National Congress


  1. ^
  2. ^ "New S. Africa president sworn in". BBC News. 2008-09-25. Retrieved 2008-11-22. 
  3. ^ Frederick Marryat. The Mission; or Scenes in Africa. London: Nick Hodson. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 
  4. ^ "Christianity in Africa South of the Sahara: 19th Century Xhosa Christianity". Bethel University. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 
  5. ^ Edwin Diale (1979). "Makana". African National Congress. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 
  6. ^ Winston Churchill (1900). London to Ladysmith via Pretoria. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 
  7. ^ a b Newman, George (1895). Prize essays on leprosy. London : The Society. p. 194. 
  8. ^ 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. 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ Robben Island Lighthouse
  11. ^ George McCall Theal (1897). History of South Africa Under the Administration of the Dutch East India Company [1652 to 1795: Under the Administration of the Dutch East India Company (1652–1795)]. Swan Sonnenschein. p. 442. Retrieved 2008-10-10. 
  12. ^ Les Underhill. "Robben Island". Avian Demography Unit, University of Cape Town. Retrieved 2008-10-12. 
  13. ^ Michael Klerck. "Robben Island: Childhood Memories—a personal reflection". Retrieved 2008-11-23. 
  14. ^ No longer true as of 2008
  15. ^ BBC News. Robben Island is 'under threat'. October 31, 2009.

External links

Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

Map of Robben Island
Map of Robben Island

Robben Island [1] is in the Western Cape of South Africa, approximately 7km off the coast and 12km from Cape Town harbour. This island is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.



The island was first discovered by Europeans in 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias reached Table Bay.

Soon afterward it was put to use as a prison by the Portuguese, British and Dutch. From 1652 the island also served as a refreshment station for ships that did not wish to visit the mainland.

In 1658 the island saw its first political prisoner, Autshumato was stealing back livestock that was confiscated by the new European settlers, was tried and imprisoned on the island. Later the same century a number of people resisting Dutch rule over the East Indies were also shipped to Cape Town and incarcerated on the island.

In 1795 the British took control of the Cape. They continued to use the island as a prison and from the middle of the 18th century also used it as an asylum. In 1890 a leprosy colony as established on the island.

In 1936 the South African Defence Force took control of the island and improved the infrastructure by building new roads, a power station and housing.

From 1961 it was again used as a prison, primarily to house those opposed to the apartheid government of the time.

Today the island is a museum and tourist attraction.


The highest point on the island is Minto Hill at 30 m. A lighthouse is built here.

Flora and fauna

There is a very well established penguin colony on the island, around 13,000 strong.

The ferry Sea Princess at the V&A waterfront.
The ferry Sea Princess at the V&A waterfront.

Due to limited facilities and conservation efforts, visits to the island is restricted to 1800 people per day. As at 1st February 2008 the waiting time to visit the island is two weeks, so if you plan to visit make sure that you book as soon as you arrive in Cape Town to avoid disappointment.

By ferry

Ferries leave the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town six times a day. Trip time to the island is about 30 minutes. Book in advance, ph: +27 (0)21 413-4208. For information, ph: +27 (0)21 413 4200.

Be sure to book the trip to Robben Island in advance as the tours are usually booked up for several days ahead.

By helicopter

Contact Civair, +27 (0)21 419-5182.


Ferry trip and admission is R200 (R100 for children under 17 years).

Get around

On foot

The island is small, about 4.5 km long by 2.5 km wide.

By bus

A tour bus is operated on the island.

  • The prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life.
  • Chanson de la Mer, (1986) at Shelly Beach
  • Han Cheng 2, (1998) in Rangatira Bay
  • Sea Challenger, (1998) in Rangatira Bay
  • Fung Thu, (1977) on the South of the island
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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ROBBEN ISLAND, an island at the entrance of Table Bay, 7 m. N.N.W. of Cape Town. It is some 4 m. long by 2 broad. At its southern end is a lighthouse with a fixed light visible for 20 m. It got its name (robben, Dutch for seal) from the seals which formerly frequented it, now only occasional visitants. The island when discovered was uninhabited. It is first mentioned by an English seaman named Raymond, who states that in 1591 seals and penguins were there in large numbers. In 1614 ten criminals from London were landed on the island to form a settlement and supply fresh provisions to passing ships. The attempt, which ended in failure, is interesting as the first recorded settlement of English in South Africa. In the 18th century the slate quarries of Robben Island were extensively worked by the Dutch of Cape Town. The island is now noted for its leper asylum and its convict establishment. For many years an asylum for lunatics was also maintained, but in 1904 the lunatics were removed to the mainland. The common rabbit, brought from England, abounds, but its introduction to the mainland is prohibited. As early as 1657 criminals were banished to the island by the Dutch authorities at Cape Town; it has also served as the place of detention of several noted Kaffir chiefs.

See G. F. Gresley, "The Early History of Robben Island," in The Cape Illustrated Magazine (Oct. 1895).

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Simple English

Robben Island is located near Cape Town in South Africa. It was a high-security prison where Nelson Mandela was held captive for 18 years. He and the other political prisoners were set to work at the limestone quarries on the island where they could not talk or do anything but work. They were not allowed sunglasses, so when the prisoners were released in 1987, the ophthalmologists who checked their eye found cataracts and limestone dust lodged into their eyes.

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