Jan van Riebeeck visits Robben Island for the first time

Robben Island Image source

Saturday, 14 September 1652

Robben Island is the largest of the nearby coastal islands around the Cape. In the nearly four centuries of European settlement it has been used for numerous purposes, the first being for it's natural resources for agriculture, as an important quarry, and for game.  It wasn't long after the first Dutch settlement at the cape, however, before the island began to grow into its modern legacy as a place of sorrow.

It's unique geography - close to the mainland, yet at the same time separated by frigid waters and strong currents - made it a natural location to isolate undesirables. The first political prisoner, Autshumato, was exiled in 1658.  He had attempted to take back cattle that his people believed to have been unfairly confiscated by European settlers. This would be the start of a long trend, as over the centuries ordinary criminals, the mentally ill, lepers and even prostitutes who could spread diseases were sent to the island; first by the Dutch, then British colonial officials.

It was under the Apartheid regime that Robben Island gained international infamy as a maximum security prison. From 1961 to 1991 over 3000 political prisoners were incarcerated there, including Nelson Mandela

In 1997 Robben Island was designated a World Heritage Site.

    1. Van Der Walt, W.  "Robben Island, South Africa - Place Of Sorrows" website: ezinearticles.com

    Last updated : 13-Sep-2016

    This article was produced for South African History Online on 16-Mar-2011