Robben Island: Learn About The Dark History Of This Place

The Robben Island museum, a few kilometers from Cape Town, was until recently a maximum security prison that many of the black leaders passed through in the days of apartheid, including Nelson Mandela.
Robben Island - Learn about the dark history of this place

We head to South Africa, to a place with an infamous history that has become a historic site. This is the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for years. Robben Island, or the Island of Seals, is today a World Heritage Site and also a museum.

This enclave has been a jail since the Dutch settlers arrived in the 17th century. It is believed that Vasco de Gama was the first settler to set foot on the island. It has also housed a mental institution, a leper hospital, a quarantine facility for animals, and a military base.

Robben Island is today a tourist center reached from Cape Town by ferry. The jail is a museum and the tour is guided by a former prisoner who spent a good time there. Another of the most attractive tours is the tour of the rest of the island, visiting the port of Murray Bay.

It is also the refuge of flora and fauna of great interest and the museum itself is in charge of its conservation. There are hundreds of bird species on Robben Island, as well as antelope.

The first “guests”

Robben Island prison entrance
Entrance to the prison

Some members of a local family are known to have been the first to have contact with the European settlers. Those acted as interpreters and also as a commercial link with the native population of the place.

Krotoa was a woman who married a settler, learned various European languages, and acted as an interpreter with the locals around 1655. A relative of hers had done the same before and it appears that they both ended up going through the Robben Island jail. It is said that it was due to problems with alcohol.

However, the majority of those imprisoned on the island were indigenous leaders who opposed Dutch colonialism. One of them was an imam from Cape Town who was imprisoned and died in jail. There is a monument that remembers it. Even today this is a pilgrimage site for South African Muslims.

A century later another historical event occurred involving the Robben Island jail. A slave ship suffered a mutiny by the Malagasy. Its two main leaders were imprisoned on the island.

There were also Europeans imprisoned on Robben Island, political leaders. But many of them have been tribal chiefs fighting against the Dutch and British invasion.

The leper colony and the Second World War

Robben Island Prison Interior
Prison interior – jeremy Seto /

Robben Island began to be used to isolate leprosy patients in 1845, although in the early years the patients were not held there. However, in 1892 they were forbidden to leave the island.

Already in the twentieth century, during World War II, the island housed heavy antiaircraft batteries and was converted into a large fortification. These elements can still be visited today on one of the tours that tour Robben Island

Robben Island and apartheid

Inside a cell on Robben Island
Inside a cell

In the 1960s Robben Island was transformed into a maximum security prison with a strict prison regime. Leaders of South African black communities were systematically dispatched there. Among them, activists Patrick Chamuso and Govan Mbeki, the father of the South African president.

The most famous political prisoner on Robben Island was Nelson Mandela. He was held there for 18 of the 28 years in prison to which he was sentenced. He arrived at this prison on May 27, 1963.

When he arrived on the island, his destiny was to die there. But Nelson Mandela left Robben Island in March 1982 to be transferred to Pollsmoor Prison.

During his time on the island, he lived like any other political prisoner from South Africa and Namibia. Small cells with a small cement patio and a bucket of water. The Robben Island prison regime was intended to punish and humiliate the leaders of the black movement.

Robben Island has passed into posterity as a cursed place. A small enclave that accumulates suffering and injustices alike and that has remained as a legacy and an example of what cannot happen again.

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