Robben Island (Afrikaans: Robbeneiland) is an island in Table Bay, 6.9
kilometres (4.3 mi) west of the coast of Bloubergstrand, Cape
Town, South Africa. The name is Dutch for "seal island." Robben Island
is roughly oval in shape, 3.3 km (2.1 mi) long north-south,
and 1.9 km (1.2 mi) wide, with an area of 5.08 km2
(1.96 sq mi). It is flat and only a few metres above sea
level, as a result of an ancient erosion event. Nobel Laureate and
former President of
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned there
for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of
apartheid. To date, three former inmates of
Robben Island have gone on
to become President of South Africa: Nelson Mandela, Kgalema
Motlanthe, and former president Jacob Zuma.
Robben Island is a South African National Heritage Site as well as a
UNESCO World Heritage Site.
2 Access to the island
3 Maritime hazard
Robben Island lighthouse
4 Wildlife and conservation
5 List of former prisoners held at Robben Island
6 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
Robben Island as viewed from
Table Mountain towards Saldanha Bay.
Since the end of the 17th century,
Robben Island has been used for the
isolation of mainly political prisoners. The Dutch settlers were the
first to use
Robben Island as a prison. Its first prisoner was
Autshumato in the mid-17th century. Among its early permanent
inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies,
including Indonesia, and the leader of the mutiny on the slave ship
After the British
Royal Navy captured several Dutch
East Indiamen at
the battle of
Saldanha Bay in 1781, a boat rowed out to meet the
British warships. On board were the "kings of
Ternate and Tidore, and
the princes of the respective families". The Dutch had long held them
on "Isle Robin", but then had moved them to Saldanha Bay.
In 1806 the
Scottish whaler John Murray opened a whaling station at a
sheltered bay on the north-eastern shore of the island which became
known as Murray's Bay, adjacent to the site of the present-day harbour
named Murray's Bay Harbour which was constructed in 1939–40.
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. He drowned on the shores
Table Bay after escaping the prison.
The island was also used as a leper colony and animal quarantine
station. Starting in 1845 lepers from the Hemel-en-Aarde (heaven
and earth) 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. 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
During the Second World War the island was fortified and BL 9.2-inch
guns and 6-inch guns were installed as part of the defences for Cape
Robben Island was used by the South African government as a
prison for political prisoners and convicted criminals. In 1969 the
Moturu Kramat, which is now a sacred site for
Muslim pilgrimage on
Robben Island, was built to commemorate Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the
Prince of Madura. Moturu, who was one of Cape Town's first imams, was
exiled to the island in the mid-1740s. He died there in 1754. Muslim
political prisoners would pay homage at the shrine before leaving the
The maximum security prison for political prisoners closed in 1991.
The medium security prison for criminal prisoners was closed five
With the end of apartheid, the island has become a popular destination
with global tourists. It is managed by
Robben Island Museum (RIM);
which operates the site as a living museum. In 1999 the island was
declared a World Heritage Site. Every year thousands of visitors take
the ferry from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in
Cape Town for
tours of the island and its former prison. Many of the guides are
former prisoners. All land on the island is owned by the country of
South Africa with the exception of the island church. It is open all
year around, weather permitting.
Access to the island
Robben Island is accessible to visitors through tours that depart from
Cape Town's waterfront. Tours depart three times a day and take about
3.5 hours, consisting of a ferry trip to and from the island, and a
tour of the various historical sites on the island that form part of
Robben Island Museum. These include the island graveyard, the
disused lime quarry, Robert Sobukwe’s house, the Bluestone quarry,
the army and navy bunkers, and the maximum security prison including
Nelson Mandela’s cell.
Dutch map of the island, from 1731.
Seagoing vessels must take great care navigating near Robben Island
and nearby Whale Rock (it does not break the surface) as they pose a
danger to shipping. A prevailing rough Atlantic swell surrounds
the offshore reefs and the island's jagged coastline. Stricken vessels
driven onto rocks are quickly broken up by the powerful surf. There
are a total of 31 known vessels that have been wrecked around the
In 1990, a marine archaeology team from the University of Cape Town
began Operation "Sea Eagle". It was an underwater survey that scanned
9 square nautical miles (31 km2; 12 sq mi) of seabed
around Robben Island. The task was made particularly difficult by the
strong currents and high waves that make sailing in these waters
treacherous. Nevertheless, the group managed to find 24 vessels that
had sunk around Robben Island. Most wrecks were found in waters less
than 10 metres (33 ft) deep. The team concluded that poor
weather, darkness and fog were the cause of the sinkings.
Maritime wrecks around
Robben Island and its surrounding waters
include the 17th century Dutch
East Indiaman ships, the Yeanger van
Horne (1611), the Shaapejacht (1660), and the Dageraad (1694). Later
19th century wrecks include several British brigs including the
Gondolier (1836) and the American clipper, A.H. Stevens (1866). In
1901 the mail steamer SS Tantallon Castle struck rocks off Robben
Island in dense fog shortly after leaving Cape Town. After distress
cannons were fired from the island, nearby vessels rushed to the
rescue. All 120 passengers and crew were taken off the ship before it
was broken apart in the relentless swell. A further 17 ships have been
wrecked in the 20th century, including British, Spanish, Norwegian and
Robben Island lighthouse
Due to the maritime danger that
Robben Island presents to shipping,
Jan van Riebeeck, the first Dutch colonial administrator in Cape Town
in the 1650s, ordered that huge bonfires were to be lit at night on
top of Fire Hill, the highest point on the island (now Minto Hill).
These were to warn VOC ships approaching the island.
Robben Island lighthouse was completed on Minto Hill. The
cylindrical masonry tower, which has an attached lightkeepers house at
its base, is 18 metres (59 ft) high with a lantern gallery at the
top. In 1938 the lamp was converted to electricity. The lighthouse
utilises a flashing lantern instead of a revolving lamp; it shines for
a duration of 5 seconds every seven seconds. The 46,000 candela beam
flashes white light away from Table Bay. It is visible up to 24
nautical miles (28 mi; 44 km). A secondary red light
acts as a navigation aid for vessels sailing south southeast.
Wildlife and conservation
Robben island coast with a view of Table Mountain, 2015
African or Blackfoot penguin on Robben Island, 2015
African sacred ibis on Robben Island, 2015
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 to provide a ready source of
meat for passing ships.
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. The colony grew to a size of ~16,000
individuals in 2004, before starting to decline in size again. As of
2015[update], this decline has been continuous (to a colony size of
~3,000 individuals) and mirrors that found at almost all other African
penguin colonies. Its causes are still largely unclear and likely to
vary between colonies, but at
Robben Island are probably related to a
diminishing of the food supply (sardines and anchovies) through
competition by fisheries. 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 lived on the island from an
early age, describes the fauna life there:
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 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
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 25,000 rabbits on the island.
Humans are hunting and
culling the rabbits to reduce their number.
List of former prisoners held at Robben Island
Ahmed Kathrada, who was imprisoned in
Robben Island between 1964 and
1982, giving a tour of the prison to the US then-president Barack
Obama's family in 2013.
Former prison cells and corridor on Robben Island
Rock pile started by
Nelson Mandela and added to—one rock at a
time—by former prisoners returning to the island
Muslim Moturu Kramat shrine on Robben Island
Artwork in the
Robben Island Museum
Autshumato, one of the first activists 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 (political activist)
Jerry Ekandjo, Namibian politician
Nceba Faku, former Metro Mayor of Port Elizabeth
Petrus Iilonga, Namibian trade unionist, activist and politician
Ahmed Kathrada, former Rivonia Trialist and long-serving prisoner
Koesaaij, Malagasy co-leader of the
Meermin slave mutiny
Meermin slave mutiny in February,
Langalibalele, The King of the Hlubi people, one of the first
activists against colonialism
John Kenneth Malatji, former activist and special forces of ANC -
Njongonkulu Ndungane, later to become Archbishop of Cape Town
Mosiuoa Lekota, imprisoned in 1974, President and Leader of the
Congress of the People
Mac Maharaj, former accused at Little Rivonia Trial
Makana, one of the activists against colonialism
African National Congress
African National Congress leader and former president
South Africa (first black president)
Gamzo Mandierd, activist
Jeff Masemola, the first prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment in
the apartheid era
Amos Masondo, former Mayor of Johannesburg
Massavana, Malagasy leader of the
Meermin slave mutiny
Meermin slave mutiny in February,
Michael Matsobane, leader of Young African Religious Movement.
Sentenced at Bethal in 1979; released by PW Botha in 1987.
Chief Maqoma, former chief who died on the island in 1873
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
Soweto Uprising student leader
Dikgang Moseneke, Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa
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
Billy Nair, former Rivonia Trialist and ANC/SACP leader
M. D. Naidoo, a South African lawyer and member of the African
John ya Otto Nankudhu, Namibian liberation fighter
John Nkosi Serving life but released by PW Botha in 1987
Samuel Sisulu Founder of South African Freedom Organisation
Nongqawuse, the Xhosa prophetess responsible for the Cattle Killing
Maqana Nxele, former Xhosa prophet who drowned while trying to escape
John Nyathi Pokela, co-founder and former chairman of the PAC
Joe Seremane, former chairperson of the Democratic Alliance.
Tokyo Sexwale, businessman and aspirant leader of the African National
Gaus Shikomba, Namibian politician
Walter Sisulu, former ANC Activist
Raymond Mhlaba, former ANC Activist and first former Premier of the
Stone Sizani, ANC Chief Whip
Robert Sobukwe, former leader of the PAC
Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, Namibian politician
Sakaria Nashandi, Namibian politicia
Jacob Zuma, Former president of
South Africa and leader of the African
Setsiba Paul Mohohlo, former APLA unit commander
Micheal Ludumo Buka, former ANC Activist
Kgalema Motlanthe, South Africa's first Pedi president
John Aifheli Thabo, an ANC political activist
Ezra Mvuyisi Sigwela, an ANC political activist
Xolani Casper Jonas, an ANC political activist
Kwezi Nontsikelo, ANC political activist, Advisor to the Minister of
South Africa portal
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^ "Avian Demography Unit: Robben Island". Department of Biological
Sciences, University of Cape Town.
^ "New S. Africa president sworn in". BBC News. 25 September 2008.
^ "9/2/018/0004 - Robben Island, Table Bay". South African Heritage
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^ "Robben Island". UNESCO. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
^ The New Annual Register, Or General Repository of History ...,
(October 1781), Vol. 2, p.90.
^ Peires, Jeffrey B. (1989). The Dead Will Arise:
Nongqawuse and the
Great Xhosa Cattle Killing Movement of 1856–7. Indiana University
Press. p. 301. ISBN 9780253205247.
^ Deacon, Harriet, ed. (1996). The Island: A History of Robben Island,
1488–1990. New Africa Books. pp. 4–5.
^ Frederick Marryat. The Mission; or Scenes in Africa. London: Nick
Hodson. Retrieved 2008-10-10.
^ "Christianity in Africa South of the Sahara: 19th Century Xhosa
Christianity". Bethel University. Archived from the original on 14 May
2008. Retrieved 2008-10-10.
^ Edwin Diale (1979). "Makana". African National Congress. Archived
from the original on 2 June 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-10.
Winston Churchill (1900). London to Ladysmith via Pretoria. London:
Longmans, Green, and Co. Retrieved 2008-10-10.
^ a b Newman, George (1895). Prize essays on leprosy. London: The
Society. p. 194.
Robben Island Museum website, retrieved 8 June 2013
Robben Island tours".
Robben Island Museum.
^ 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.
^ a b Smith, Charlene (1997). Robben Island. Struik. pp. 30–32.
^ William Henry Rosser, James Frederick Imray (1867). The Seaman's
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Sonnenschein. p. 442. Retrieved 2008-10-10.
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Cape Town. Retrieved 2008-10-12.
^ Weller, F.; Cecchini, L.A.; Shannon, L.; Sherley, R.B.; Crawford,
R.J.; Altwegg, R.; Scott, L.; Stewart, T.; Jarre, A. (2014). "A system
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^ Michael Klerck. "Robben Island: Childhood Memories—a personal
reflection". www.robbenisland.org. Retrieved 2008-11-23.
^ No longer true as of 2008[update]
^ BBC News.
Robben Island is 'under threat'. 31 October 2009.
^ sahoboss (2011-03-16). "Hlubi Chief
Langalibalele becomes one of the
first Black activists to be tried and banished to Robben Island".
South African History Online. Retrieved 2018-02-17.
^ Sindiwe Magona (1 October 2012). From
Robben Island to Bishop's
Court: The Biography of Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane. David Philip.
^ "John Ya Otto Nankudhu passes on". New Era. NAMPA. 22 June
Weideman, Marinda (June 2004). "ROBBEN ISLAND'S ROLE IN COASTAL
DEFENCE, 1931–1960". Military History Journal: The South African
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Robben Island.
Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Robben Island.
Robben Island Museum
Robben Island – UNESCO World Heritage Centre
Robben Island Museum at Google Cultural Institute
World Heritage Sites in South Africa
For official site names, see each article or the List of World
Heritage Sites in South Africa.
Cape Floral Region Protected Areas
Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa
Cradle of Humankind
iSimangaliso Wetland Park
Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape
ǀXam and ǂKhomani heartland
18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013
South Africa (1994–1999)
President of the
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African National Congress (1991–1997)
Mandela and Tambo law firm
Umkhonto we Sizwe
1955 Congress of the People
Victor Verster Prison
Negotiations to end apartheid in South Africa
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70th Birthday Tribute
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Awards and honours
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Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Constitution of South Africa
1995 Rugby World Cup
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Mandela: The Authorised Biography (1999)
Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years (2017)
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Mandela and de Klerk (1997)
Goodbye Bafana (2007)
Long Walk to Freedom
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Mandela: The Struggle Is My Life (2013)
Mandela's Gun (2016)
Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa (father)
Nosekeni Fanny (mother)
Evelyn Mase (wife)
Graça Machel (wife)
Zenani Mandela-Dlamini (daughter)
Zindzi Mandela-Hlongwane (daughter)
African National Congress
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Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)
Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela) (song)
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De Waal Park
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World of Birds Wildlife Sanctuary and Monkey Park
Cape Town at Wikimedia Commons . S