The Famous Robben Island Heritage Site

Robben Island is most famous for the prison that Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in during the Apartheids Era.  Today it is a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Island is located in Table Bay, some 6km west of Bloubergstrand.  It has been used as a prison and a place where people were isolated, banished and exiled to for nearly 400 years. It was also used as a post office, a grazing ground, a mental hospital and an outpost.

The origin of Robben Island

Initially, the island was inhabited by a variety of wild life, including birds, penguins, seals and tortoises. Its name “robben” is derived from the Dutch, meaning a seal. It also had a plentiful supply of fresh water available from a number of springs. Batolomeu Dias, the Portuguese explorer, ‘discovered’ the island in 1488 when he anchored his ship in Table Bay.

Before 1652 most visiting ships to Table Bay preferred to land on Robben Island to replenish their supplies of fresh water and meat. As a result, it also became a major point for the exchange of mail.  Letters from an outgoing ship would then be left underneath an inscribed stone for collection and delivery by a home-going vessel. The Dutch also began to use the island as a grazing station for sheep and cattle. There were also plenty of seals, tortoises, and penguins for hunting.

Robben Island as a convict station

However, the potential of the island as a convict station did not go unnoticed.  In about 1671 the Dutch began to use it for their convicted criminals.  It was only a matter of time before this courtesy was extended to political prisoners and other “undesirables” banished to the Cape.

Robben Island as a hospital for the ‘mentally ill’

In 1845 the island had become a home for the Colony’s unwanted and unloved and those deemed to be ‘mentally ill’.  In those days the ‘mentally ill’ could include the homeless, alcoholics and people who were too sick or old to work.  This establishment was only closed down in 1931.

After 1931 all the ‘patients’ were sent to hospitals in the Cape and the island began to be used as a military outpost before WW II. Guns were stored there and the government built roads, a power station, a new water supply, and houses.  In 1961 it started being used as a prison again. Robben Island became a symbol of the strength of the human spirit, when the political prisoners were released.

A World Heritage Site

Robben Island was declared a World Heritage Site because the buildings on the island are a reminder of its history.  The same buildings also show the power of the human spirit, freedom and the victory of democracy over oppression.


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