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Category » Cape Towns Attractions Robben Island History

November 09, 2018

Robben Island history

The well-known Robben Island, situated just off the shore of Cape Town, is one of South Africa's major attractions. Robben Island can be visited by taking a private Robben Island tour.

The island attracts thousands of guests each year from numerous places around the world. Robben Island is one of Cape Town’s major tourist attractions and is rich in the history of political prison it housed for many years. The word ‘rob’ means seal in Afrikaans, which is derived from the Dutch language.

The island is located around 6.9 km's from the city of Cape Town.

Robben Island was used for:

  • Replenishing ships
  • A whaling station
  • A mental hospital
  • A military base
  • A political prison

Robben Island History, Early 1600's

The first occupant of Robben Island was the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch arrived at the Cape in 1652 with three vessels. They landed in the Table Bay area with slaves from Malaysia. On the vessels were Kings and Queens from the East Indies who did not comply with the laws of the Dutch religion in their own countries and were thus sent to Robben Island as prisoners.

A prominent figure was Imam Sayed Abdurahman Moturu who was the prince of Madurai, a major state in India. He was the first imam in South Africa and was sent to Robben Island for practising a different religion to the Dutch religion. Today, the karamat (shrine) is still highly respected by the Muslim people of Cape Town.

In 1671, the Dutch made the decision to use the island for prisoners and unwanted people in society, people who were not of benefit to them. This could mean any person who was of age and could no longer work, people with sexually transmitted diseases and people who had mental health problems.

Autshumato was of one of the first prisoners to be kept on the island and he spent his time doing hard labour. He was sent with a group of people and worked on Robben Island as a postman and a liaison who served the European ships.

After the battle between the Dutch and the British at Saldanha Bay, the British Royal Navy captured many of the Dutch colonies, which included an Indonesian leader from the Meermin slave ship.

Robben Island History in the 1800's

After the first British occupation of the Cape, between 1795-1802, whaling activities began in and around the Table Bay area. The whaling station on Robben Island was situated on the North-Eastern side of the island and was controlled by John Murray, a Scottish whaler. However, the whaling station became an escape route for convicts on Robben Island and in 1820 it was shut down.

In 1812 the colonial secretary John Montagu used the island as a hospital for unloved and unwanted people, people of age and alcoholics. The conditions on the island were inhumane and the standard was not met for health care.

By 1845, Robben Island was used for people with leprosy (Leper colony). The Leper colony was moved from Caledon to Robben Island. They were moved from Caledon as the island appeared to be more suitable for them.

By the late 1800's new buildings were constructed on the island by the leper colony as a more permanent place to live. They were then no longer allowed to leave the island as they pleased.

The Robben Island lighthouse was customised in 1865 by John Scott Tucker, who was a colonial engineer. The lighthouse was built 18m high for European ships travelling to India for trade.

Robben Island History in the 1900's

By 1875-1904 the census at the island increased from 552-1460 people. Robben Island's popularity as a prison for political activists increased. The British increased use of the island caused the conditions to become more harsh and extreme towards the prisoners. One of the prisoners, Makhanda Nxele, was sentenced to life but tried to escape the island and drowned.

In the early 1900's the Robben Island patients were moved to hospitals in the Cape for better care. By 1931 the island was being used solely as a military base before World War 2.

A powerstation, roads and more houses were built. By 1961 the South African government declared the prison on the island as a full time prison for political leaders.

After 1947, the National Party of South Africa brought into practice the laws which separated whites from non-whites, known as apartheid. This meant that white people had privileges over non-whites. Any person who failed to obey the political laws of the country needed to do time on Robben Island. Nelson Mandela, a prominent figure in South Africa, spent 18 years on Robben Island fighting for the rights of all South Africans. He fought for the freedom and equality of the people of this country. His battle finally ended in 1990 when he was released from prison and gave his first speech at the Grand Parade.

In 1994 apartheid ended and, for the first time in history, South Africans were no longer separated and non-whites had freedom. Robben Island, today, is one of Cape Town's major attractions and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Visit the Island to see what the prison looked like and meet some of the local people who spent time in the prison.

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