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Cape Town's Infamous Robben Island


Cape Town's Infamous Robben Island

Mandela's Cell

Image © Marion Boddy-Evans. Used with Permission.
Can you image spending more than 25 years in a prison on a small, windswept island? The only time you're allowed out of the prison is to go work in a quarry. This is what happened to Nelson Mandela, the most famous prisoner of Robben Island, the prison where the South African apartheid regime locked away its political prisoners.
Robben Island has a long history of being used as a place of punishment. In 1652 Jan van Riebeeck established the first permanent settlement by Europeans in South Africa in the area that today is the city of Cape Town. Van Riebeeck was sent by the Dutch East India Company, a company based in the Netherlands which traded goods between the East and Europe.
Five years later, in 1657, he decided to use the island as a place of banishment, sending exiles and slaves to dig out the white stone found there. From then on, the various governors of the Cape found the Island very useful for getting rid of people they didn't want around.
In 1846 the prison was converted into a hospital. In 1855 part of the hospital became a colony for people with leprosy and lunatic asylum, and another part of it was converted back into a prison. The hospital closed in 1931 when the League of Nations (what became the United Nations) Health Organisation declared that lepers did not need to be kept so isolated from other people.
During the Second World War (1939 to 1945) defences were built on the island to protect South Africa against Germany. These were later used as a navy training centre. The island was also used as a station for to refuel ships travelling around the Cape following the closure of the Suez Canal.
In 1959 the island became a maximum security prison and between 1961 and 1991 over three thousand men were incarcerated here as political prisoners. The most famous of these was, of course, Nelson Mandela. He describes his time on Robben island in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
June 1990 saw the start of the removal of political prisoners by then-president FW de Klerk, the last leaving the island in May 1991. The last common-law (not political) prisoners, who had always been held separately from political prisoners, left the island in 1996.
Robben Island is about seven miles (11 kilometres) off the coast of Cape Town. It has been declared a South African national monument and a museum wasset up in September 1996. It has also become a World Heritage Site. Visitors can now take tours that show the different aspects of the island's troubled history but also its more beautiful side, its ecology and wildlife.
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