Robben Island

The entrance to one of the world's most famous
prisons

Robben Island is name that has become synonymous with oppression but also freedom and democracy. Most people recognise the name as the place where Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela was imprisoned before being released to help usher in a new age of democracy for South Africa. There is more to this island than just the prison, however, and it has an interesting history that started before Europeans even made their way to the southernmost tip of Africa.

Historical accounts suggest that Robben Island was inhabited by Stone Age people thousands of years before the first Europeans sailed around the tip of Africa. These people likely crossed to the island in a time when sea levels were considerably lower during the late Ice Ages. Since the end of the 17th century, the Dutch colonial authorities used the island as a location to isolate mainly political criminals from their other colonies. For a time, it was also used as a place to exile Xhosa leaders.

As time passed, Robben Island's purpose changed. From about 1836 to 1931, the island served as a hospice for lepers, the mentally ill and people with incurable diseases. At the same time, however, prisoners were still being kept on the island though they were kept apart from the patients. Robben Island's focus changed completely during World War II when the island was fortified with fort and cannon as part of Cape Town's defences.

Robben Island's infamous career started in 1959 when it was converted into a prison. Originally common law prisoners and political prisoners were kept together, but they were separated for the safety of both groups. The last political prisoners were moved in May 1981 and the last prisoners left the island in 1996.

Since 1997, Robben Island has been a museum and nature reserve. Today, a ferry departs form the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront on a daily basis to take tourists to the historical island. Guided tours, lead by former prisoners, show visitors the sights of the island. The prison museum offers a glimpse into the life of the prisoners, their times and their labours.

A lighthouse, built in 1864, still stands and is the only lighthouse in South Africa that uses a flickering light instead of a moving light. The island also hosts the third largest population of African penguins, despite the animals having been nearly wiped out in the late 17th century. There is also a sacred Muslim shrine on the island, Moturu Kramat, which is the site of many Muslim pilgrimages. It commemorates Sayed Abdurahman Moturu who was one of the Cape's first imams. He was exiled to the island in the 1740's and died there in 1754.

Today Robben Island is visited by scores of tourists who are mesmerised by its unique history. There is more to Robben Island than the prison that made its famous. It was the site of political change where decisions were made that would change the future of an entire nation, but at the same time it is holds many other wonders that form part of its story.

 

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