Robben Island South Africa – History and Gripping Facts

When the country of South Africa is mentioned, lots of things come to mind. First, it is one of the strongest economies in the African continent. Two, it is one of the countries with the largest gold reserves in the world. Three, it is home to many world-class game reserves and national parks. Four, it was once the focus for encouraging apartheid. However, many people know South Africa because of Robben Island.

Robben Island History

Robben Island is a world heritage site in South Africa and it has quite a history. It is most famously known as the place where late President Nelson Mandela was jailed for 18 out of his 27-year sentence. Prior to that, however, Robben Island was the place where a number of Namibian criminals were incarcerated, including Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, who was a founding member of the Ovamboland People’s Congress.

The first set of people banished to Robben Island were said to be two men who led a mutiny on the slave ship Meermin in 1766. They were refusing to be transported from their home in Madagascar to a life of slavery in the Cape Colony of South Africa. They were, therefore, sent to Robben Island for observation. The island was also once used as a leper colony in 1845. Despite what seems to be a bleak history, the people confined to Robben Island made the best of their situation there. In 1966, for instance, prisoners formed a football league among themselves that they called Makana Football Association.

The following are 10 Gripping Facts about Robben Island.

1. It Is One Of The Most Famous Islands in the World

There are many islands in the world that are quite famous, and Robben Island is certainly one of the most famous in the entire world. The term Robben Island comes from the Dutch word Robbeineiland which means Seal Island. This is probably because of the high seal population that was found around the island. The island is located on Table Bay about 6.9 kilometres to the West of Cape Town. The oval island has a length of 3.3 kilometres and a width of 1.9 kilometres. The total land area is approximately 5.07 km².

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2. It Is Home to Famous Prisoners

Usually, Islands are known for their scenic attractions and panoramic views. These include tropical climate, pristine ecosystem, abundant wildlife, good sporting ground and more. However, Robben Island is quite unique because it is a prison-island. The Island which was begun by the Dutch was mainly used to hold or imprison political figures. Its isolated location made it easy to confine, isolate and monitor prisoners. The prisoners were mainly from Holland and also Dutch colonies such as Indonesia.

robben island

3. Robben Is One of the Oldest Prisons

Robben Island is home to one of the oldest prisons in South Africa as well as the surrounding region. The prison was started in the middle of the 17th century and isolated Dutch prisoners. Over time, the island also started to isolate prisoners from non-speaking and non-Dutch colonies. The first prisoner is believed to be Harry Die Strandloper who was imprisoned in the middle of the 17th century. After release, many prisoners opted to remain on the island rather than go back home.

4. It Is A World Heritage Site

Besides being one of the popular tourist attractions in South Africa, Robben Island has also been gazetted as a world heritage site by UNESCO. This declaration was made in 1999 based on the cultural significance the Island plays in the lives of not only South Africans but other people as well. Robben Island held convicted and political prisoners until 1961. Thereafter, it became a maximum security prison and only political prisoners were held there. In 1996, the island-prison was closed and became a national heritage site.

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5. It Poses A Maritime Threat

The region between Robben Island and the neighbouring Whale Rock is known to be quite dangerous. The location experiences heavy storms and winds quite often. The destructive winds and waves smash vessels and ships along the rocky shores tearing them to pieces. The wrecked vessels are never recovered due to the deep waters. The most notable disaster was the wrecking of a Dutch ship that was carrying gold coins in the 17th century. The total value of gold which has never been recovered is estimated to be worth tens of millions of Euros or dollars.

6. It Served As Home To Political Prisoners

Robben Island had been serving as a prison since the mid 17th century. Nonetheless, it rose to international fame after the release of the former president of South Africa and Nobel Laureate, the late Nelson Madiba Mandela. He was imprisoned in Robben Island for 18 years for his stand against apartheid. Other popular figures and statesmen in South Africa were also imprisoned at the facility. They include Mr. Jacob Zuma who is the former President of South Africa and Kgalema Motlanthe who was imprisoned for 10 years.

7. It is One of the Most Visited Sites in South Africa

South Africa prides itself in being among the top tourist nations in Africa. Many tourists both local, as well as foreign, always visit the country annually. Traditionally, a visit to the country is never complete without making a visit to Robben Island. A trip to the island allows them to experience the life prisoners went through. Although it no longer serves as a prison, the facility has been maintained as it was during the days of isolating political prisoners.


8. The Island Is South Africa’s National Heritage Site

Robben Island holds a special spot in the making of the country of South Africa. The island is what attracted the Dutch to the region due to the high population of seals and penguins. Many years later, the settlers brought apartheid which led to the jailing of popular South African leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma. The island reshaped the future of South Africa and this is why it has been gazetted as a South African National Heritage Site.

9. Robben Was More Than a Prison-Island

Many people know Robben Island because of its role in isolating political prisoners. However, besides being a prison, it also served other purposes. For instance, in 1845, the island served as a leper colony. Lepers from Caledon were moved to the island. Initially, lepers would relocate to the island on a voluntary basis. However, later on, it became compulsory. The island has also served as an animal quarantine station.

10. It Influenced Arrival of the Dutch

Robben Island plays an important role in the history of South Africa. Many of their leaders and spokesmen were at some point in time imprisoned at the island. The prison-island was also influenced the Dutch to settle in South Africa. The Dutch first arrived on the island in the middle of the 16th century. They were attracted by the abundant supply of seal, African penguins, and birds. Some were held captive at the island and upon release chose to live nearby.

Robben Island started as a very simple island where prisoners were kept. In fact, it was hardly unknown until the release of the former South African president, the late Nelson Madiba Mandela. Nonetheless, at the moment, it is one of the most recognised features of South Africa. Many visitors visit the country every year just to have a glimpse on the isolated island. It gives them a chance to relive history and experience life in the prison. They are able to walk in the same paths that great South African heroes and patriots once walked on.

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Andile Smith
Andile Smith
Andile provides articles on anything from Politics, Sports, History and entertainment to funny, creepy and weird. His passion for writing allows him to take what is ordinary and transform it into a real masterpiece. He's a true storyteller with a passion for tech and literature


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