Robben Island

May 24 2014


n the summer of 2003 we visited South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. One very ipmressive tour was the excursion to Robben island in South Africa. Robben Island (Afrikaans Robbeneiland) is an island in Table Bay, 12 km off the coast from Cape Town, South Africa and is located at 33.806734° S 18.366222° E. The name is Dutch for “seal island” (or to be strictly accurate “island of seals”, because Robben is a plural noun), although “Seal Island” is a different island near Cape Town (in False Bay). Robben Island is roughly circular and about a kilometer wide. It is flat and only a few metres above sealevel, as a result of an ancient erosion event. The island is composed of Precambrian metamorphic rocks belonging to the Malmesbury Group. Robben Island was first inhabited thousands of years ago by stone age people, at a time when sealevels were considerably lower than they are today and people could walk to it. It was then a flat-topped hill. Towards the end of the last Ice Age the melting of the ancient ice caps caused sealevels to rise once again (they have gone up and down many times over the ages) and the land around the island was flooded by the ocean. Since the end of the 17th century, Robben Island has been used to isolate certain people — mainly prisoners — and amongst its first permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia.


rom 1836 to 1931 the island was used as a leper colony and in the 20th century it became infamous as a gaol for political prisoners under apartheid. Notable amongst these were Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Robert Sobukwe. During the time that the island was a prison, security was very tight and it was off limits to almost all civilians, including fishermen. Before about 1980 there was not one citizen in 10,000 in Cape Town who had set foot on the island. It is not generally known that the use of the island as a prison was greatly inhibited for centuries by a lack of fresh water. The island is arid, with low scrubby vegetation and has no watercourses. Boreholes were drilled in the first half of the 20th century but in due course the fragile water table was invaded by sea water and the bores became useless. Sometime after 1965 a pipeline was laid on the bottom of the ocean from Cape Town. In the end, many of the prisoners were moved from the island to the mainland. When the Dutch arrived in the area about 400 years ago, the only large animals on the island were seals and birds. In about 1960, or a little before, the warden of the island introduced a few antelope that were native to the coastal dunes nearby and also a few giant tortoises, which were not! The tortoises probably originated in the Galapagos Islands or the Seychelles and came from the zoo on the slopes of Devil’s Peak in Cape Town, where they have lived in captivity for at least 150 years. It is not clear whether these animals still exist on the island.

© Mazalien 1999 - 2014

Robben Island picture gallery

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