People lived on Robben Island many thousands of years ago, when the sea channel between the Island and the Cape mainland was not covered with water. Since the Dutch settled at the Cape in the mid-1600s, Robben Island has been used primarily as a prison.
Indigenous African leaders, Muslim leaders from the East Indies, Dutch and British soldiers and civilians, women, and anti-apartheid activists, including South Africa’s first democratic President, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela and the founding leader of the Pan Africanist Congress, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, were all imprisoned on the Island.
The island was also used as a leper colony and animal quarantine station. Starting in 1845 lepers from the Hemel-en-Aarde (Heaven and Earth) leper colony near Caledon were moved to Robben Island. Initially this was done on a voluntary basis and the lepers were free to leave the island if they so wished. In April 1891, the cornerstones for 11 new buildings to house lepers were laid. After the introduction of the Leprosy Repression Act in May 1892 admission was no longer voluntary and the movement of the lepers was restricted. Prior to 1892, an average of about 25 lepers a year were admitted to Robben Island, but in 1892 that number rose to 338, and in 1893 a further 250 were admitted.
What makes Robben Island so special?
Robben Island lies on the Western Coast of Africa a short distance from Cape Town, across the icy, shark-ridden waters of the Atlantic. Windswept and waterless, the 518ha Island has long been a place of banishment and despair. Infamous as a Maximum Security Prison from the 1960s to the 1990s, its most famous prisoner was Nelson Mandela.
Since 1997 it has been a museum and a heritage site. The museum is a dynamic institution, which acts as a focal point of South African heritage. It runs educational programmes for schools, youths and adults, facilitates tourism development, conducts ongoing research related to the Island and fulfils an archiving function.
Download this infographic.