Attractions / Western Cape

Robben Island a brief history

Updated Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Robben Island lies approximately 12 kilometers from Cape Town and for the past 400 years this island has had anything but a peaceful history.

The island has become synonymous with heartache, despair and a place where people were dumped for various reasons, most of those reasons horrify us today and we often cannot image what it must have been like, what the conditions were for the poor souls shut away from the world, a world they knew existed only 12 kilometers from their own private hell.

Robben Island

Robben Island was inhabited thousands of years ago when there was a walk-way between the Cape Mainland and the island, before the sea covered it. The island took on its sinister reputation in the mid-1600s when the Dutch settled at the Cape.

The island was a convenient place to use for Portuguese and English prisoners and soon political prisoners joined the general criminal population already incarcerated there.

Robben Island a brief history

For about one hundred years Robben Island became a quarantine station with a hospital for lepers and the insane. During this time there was little medical help for people who were chronically ill, so the island was put in use to house the chronically ill as well.

This all sounds surreal to us today, that you could be exiled to an island with lepers and the insane if you had a chronic illness, but that is exactly what happened.

The only time in history the island was put to a different use was during WW2 when it was a defense and training facility. During the military occupation they improved the water supplying system, built a new power station, erected modern housing and brought in a new boat to for supplies and commuting from the mainland.

From 1961 to 1991 it was a maximum security prison for political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela and other famous heroes of the struggle.

1994 saw the dawning of a new era for this turbulent island and for all the island today stands as a living memorial to the strength of human will to survive and fight for what they believe in, to fight for freedom from injustice, racism and the suppression of human rights and dignity and to this end the island has been declared a World Heritage Site.

In 1996 the last of the criminal prisoners left the island.

People from all over the world come to Robben Island; for many it is a pilgrimage, to stand in silence in this place of great suffering, to acknowledge the horrors of the past and to celebrate the victory of those who fought and died for freedom and to rejoice for those who walked out of the prison as free men.

Robben Island Links




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