The Historical Significance of Robben Island

History of the Island

Best known as the place where Nelson Mandela spent nearly 30 years of his life, Robben Island has further historical significance for South Africa. It was first used as a natural larder where sailing ships could stock up on free seals and penguin eggs. 

©Roger de la Harpe

When those ran out, sheep and rabbits were introduced. During this time, sailors who committed crimes aboard their ships were dropped off on the island to live or die.

The island, just off Cape Town's shores, became the country's first political prison back in the 1700s when Muslim opponents to Dutch rule in Indonesia were shipped there.

During the Eastern Cape Frontier Wars in the 1800’s, Xhosa leaders, including the warrior-prophet Makana, were sent there by European colonialists.

Later it became a leper colony and mental hospital and then a WWII fort before being turned into the notorious apartheid political prison. It nearly became an offshore gambling resort. but luckily now the island is a cultural and nature reserve.

By David Bristow