Robben Island: Learn about the dark history of this place

We head to South Africa, to a place with an infamous history that has become a historic site. This is the place where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for years. Robben Island, or Seal Island, is today a World Heritage Site and also a museum.

This enclave has been a prison since the Dutch settlers arrived in the 17th century. It is believed that Vasco de Gama was the first settler to set foot on the island. It has also housed a mental institution, a leper hospital, an animal quarantine facility, and a military base.

Robben Island is today a tourist center reached from Cape Town by ferry. The jail is a museum and the tour is led by a former prisoner who spent a lot of time there. Another of the tours most attractive is the tour of the rest of the island, visiting the port of Murray Bay.

It is also the refuge of flora and fauna of great interest and it is the museum itself that is in charge of its conservation. There are hundreds of species of birds and antelope on Robben Island.

The first “guests”

prison entrance

We have news of some members of a local family who were the first to have contact with European settlers. Those acted as interpreters and also as a commercial link with the native population of the place.

Krotoa was a woman who married a settler, learned several European languages ​​and acted as an interpreter with the locals around 1655. A relative of his had done the same before and it seems that both ended up in prison on Robben Island. It is said that it was due to problems with alcohol.

Nevertheless, most of those imprisoned on the island were indigenous leaders opposed to Dutch colonialism. One of them was an imam from Cape Town who was imprisoned and died in prison. There is a monument that remembers him. Still today this is a place of pilgrimage for South African Muslims.

A century later, another historical event occurred involving the Robben Island prison. A slave ship suffered a mutiny by the Malagasy. Its two main leaders were imprisoned on the island.

There were also Europeans imprisoned on Robben Island, political leaders. But many of them have been tribal chiefs fighting against the Dutch and British invasion.

The Leper Colony and World War II

Prison Interior – Jeremy Seto /

Robben Island it began to be used to isolate leprosy patients in 1845, although in the first years the patients were not held there. However, in 1892 they were already prohibited from leaving the island.

Already in the 20th century, during World War II, the island housed heavy anti-aircraft batteries and was converted into a great fortification. These elements can still be visited today in one of the tours who tour Robben Island

Robben Island and the apartheid

inside a cell

In the 1960s, Robben Island was transformed into a maximum security prison. with a strict prison regime. There he was systematically sent to leaders of the black South African communities. Among them, the activists Patrick Chamuso and Govan Mbeki, the father of the South African president.

The most famous political prisoner on Robben Island was Nelson Mandela. He was held there for 18 of the 28 years in prison to which he was sentenced. He arrived at this prison on May 27, 1963.

All my life I have dedicated myself to this fight for the African people. I have fought against white domination, but also against black domination. I have yearned for the ideal of a free and democratic society, in which all people can live together, in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal that I hope to live and hope to achieve. But if need be, it’s an ideal I’m prepared to die for.

-Nelson Mandela-

When he arrived on the island, his destiny was to die there.. But Nelson Mandela left Robben Island in March 1982 to be transferred to Pollsmoor Prison.

During the time he spent on the island he lived like any other political prisoner who arrived from South Africa and Namibia. Small cells with a small cement patio and a bucket of water. The Robben Island prison regime was meant to punish and humiliate to the leaders of the black movement.

Robben Island has gone down in history as a cursed place. A small enclave that accumulates suffering and injustices alike and that has remained as a legacy and an example of what cannot happen again.

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