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Robben Island from Table Mountain
Robben Island from Table Mountain

Robben Island is well known as former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela spend 18 years of the 27 years as a prisoner on the island.  Many other leaders of the ANC were also imprisoned on Robben Island and the island was used from the early days as a prison and place of banishment.  Today Robben Island is both a South African National Heritage Site as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Nelson Mandela Madiba
Nelson Mandela (Madiba)

The name Robben Island comes from the Dutch and can be translated to English as ‘Seal Island’.  Robben Island lies in Table Bay about 6.9 km west from Bloubergstrand and 12 km from Cape Town city centre.  According to one source thousands years ago Robben Island and the Cape Town main land were connected and Robben Island became an Island because of the raising of sea water levels. 

The first known prisoner on Robben Island was Harry the Strandloper (Also called Autshumao).  Autshumao worked as an interpreter between the Dutch and the Khoi and also tried to get the Khoi to trade with the Dutch.  After an incident where he traded a little alcohol and tobacco for livestock the Khoi felt cheated and stole their livestock back.  As a result of this incident Jan van Riebeeck ordered Autshumao in 1658 to be imprisoned on Roben Island.  Only a year and half later he and another khoi escaped from the island on a rowboat.  A while later he received again permission to live and work close to the Dutch settlement. 

In 1766 a slave mutiny happened on a Dutch ship called the Meermin.  The leaders of the mutiny named as Massavana and Koesaaij were in the end also send to Robben Island.  The mutiny was an attempt from the slaves to escape slavery and get back their freedom.  The Meermin left Madagascar on 20 January1766 on its way to the Cape Colony.  The Slaves were given some assegais and spears to clean but use this to take over the ship in an attempt to sail back to Madagascar.  The Malagasy were fooled into believing the South African coast is Madagascar.  In the end the ship ran aground at Struisbaai and the remaining Malagasy were taken into custody.

Meermin Hoeker Ship
Meermin Hoeker Ship

In 1819 Makhanda (Makana) Nxele was imprisoned by the Bristish on Robben Island.  This was after he led an uprising against the British near Grahamstown with 6000 men.  The British garrison of 350 troops with the help of a Khoikhoi group led by a certain Jan Boesak were able to defeat the Xhosa’s.  After this Makana surrendered in the interest of peace and was imprisoned on Robben Island.  Makana escaped with 30 other Xhosa and Khoi prisoners but unfortunately he drowned although several of the other escapees survived.   From the early days Robben Island served as a place where political and other prisoners were kept. 

From 1845 Robben Island were also used as a leaper colony.  During the Second World War Robben Island was fortified and guns were installed as part of a plan to defend Cape Town.  From 1961 Robben Island was used as a prison for political prisoners and convicted criminals and many of the leaders of the ANC were imprisoned on Robben Island.  The best known prisoner was of course Nelson Mandela the first black president of South Africa after the end of Apartheid.  Other prisoners include Kgalema Motlanthe, Jacob Zuma, Walter Sisulu, Tokyo Sexwale, Govan Mbeki, Mosiuoa Lekota and many others. 

Robben Island Arial View
Robben Island arial view with Table Mountain in the background.
Photograph by Roger de la Harpe, Getty Images

Today Robben Island is a popular tourist destination and can be reached by a ferry from the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront and can be visited throughout the year.  Attractions on the Island include the maximum security prison, Nelson Mandela’s jail cell, the lime quarry where prisoners did hard labour and the lepers graveyard.

For more information on Robben Island and visiting times go to:


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