Chinese fleet rounds the Cape of Good Hope and most likely sets food on the Island. In 1421, Chinese Emperor Zhu Di dispatched a huge armada of ships to sail around the world. The armada split into four fleets under the overall command of Admiral Zheng He. In August of 1421, the fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope and relatively accurately mapped the continent for the first time. While we have no evidence of the crews setting foot on either Robben Island or the mainland, it is presumed that they would have done so.
Portuguese discover the Island. Some 67 years later the Portuguese were the first Europeans to round the Cape. The skipper of the 2nd Ship of the Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Dias was probably the first European to set foot on Robben Island to remove meat and eggs.
Portuguese set up a base in cave which they name 'Portugal Cave'. In 1496, the Portuguese landed again on Robben Island and set up base in a cave which they called Portugal Cave. The present day harbour was built next to the cave which was to become the whaler Murray's abode at Murray's Bay. The cave no longer exists.
Antonio de Saldanha and his men kill animals on the Island. Antonio de Saldanha retreated to Robben Island after a skirmish with the Khoe on the mainland, in which he was wounded. On Robben Island, de Saldanha and his men set about killing as many penguins, seals and tortoises as they could. It is because of the many seals that were on the Island that the Dutch were later to name the island Robben, the Dutch word for seal.
Sheep are introduced to the Island. Sir James Lancaster & Admiral Raymond were the first to introduce sheep to Robben Island, so that they would multiply and provide for future visitors. This was an important recognition of the strategic importance of the island to maritime traffic and a form of international cooperation. This practice of leaving livestock was continued in 1608 by the Dutch Admiral Cornelius Maaklof.
Island is used as a mail station. Through records it is clear that by the time John Saris was retrieving mail from a rock on Robben Island, the practice of using the island as a mail-station was quite a common maritime practice. Robben Island was therefore a post office of sorts, and played an important role in international communications.
Chief Xhore chases British convicts to Robben Island. After being lured aboard the British ship the Hector in 1613, Chief Xhore and a companion were kidnapped and taken to England. Xhore's companion later died en route. Sir Thomas Smythe of the British East India Company had designs for colonising the Cape of Good Hope, by sending out 100 convicts annually. Xhore was to be trained as an interpreter and facilitator of this plan, but Xhore hated his time in England and constantly demanded to be returned home. A year later, he was returned to Table Bay.
Xhore had learnt much about the British, and this knowledge ultimately lead to his effective resistance against Sir Thomas Smythe, who had tried to settle the Cape with convicts. Xhore chased the settlers off to Robben Island, but later in 1625, Xhore was killed by the Dutch. Xhore's sons participated in the first Khoe-Dutch war in 1658, and amongst other marks made on history, Xhore will be remembered as the first black South African to go to England.
Convicted prisoners, sent to the Cape by Sir Thomas Smythe, escape to Robben Island.
Under the patronage of King James I of England, Walter Peyton was sent to the Cape with nineteen convicted prisoners from Newgate Prison by Sir Thomas Smythe of the British East India Company. The aim of this was to establish a Penal Colony and supply station.
An ex-officer and convicted highwayman by the name of Crosse was left behind as a leader of 10 convicts set ashore with guns, ammunition and supplies. The convicts soon got into conflict with the Khoe, lead by Chief Xhore. Having received more supplies and a longboat from the passing ship of Edward Dodsworth, Crosse fled from the mainland to Robben Island with 8 men and one boy.
Nine months after having been left at the Cape, the British ship 'New Years Gift' collected 3 survivors off Robben Island. Ironically it was Chief Xhore who told the British visitors about the men then stranded on Robben Island. Crosse saw the ships at anchor and was washed out to sea and drowned during an attempt to reach the ships by means of a raft made from the wrecked long-boat.
Three more convicts are placed on Robben Island. Under orders, English Captain Benjamin Joseph once more deposited 3 convicts on Robben Island in 1617, but a few days later a fifth ship in the fleet, picked them up again for unknown reasons.
Robben Island, along with Table Bay, is claimed by the British. Table Bay and Robben Island were formally claimed by the British as crown possessions of King James I of England. Thereafter, the English practiced a very casual approach to the possession, and the Cape remained a hospitable sojourn for all international maritime traffic.
Chief Autshumato is trained and taken to Robben Island with other Peninsula Khoe.
In a similar move to the 1613 events surrounding Chief Xhore, the English took Chief Autshumato to Bantam in Java for a year (probably 1631) where he was taught the essentials of the English language. In 1632, in an act of assisted migration, Autshumato and 20 other Peninsula Khoe were then taken to Robben Island by the English to act their as postal and maritime monitoring agents.
In the same year, Autshumato convinced the Dutch to bring over 30 more Peninsula Khoe to Robben Island. Thus it came to be that Autshumato acted as an agent for both the Dutch and the English. Autshumato was able to communicate in English, Dutch, French and Portuguese, and became quite an astute diplomat, yet official history portrays him as an ignorant beachcomber.
Autshumato is also recorded as saying to visiting French ship in 1632 that he was "Au service de messejieurs Holandois et de messejieurs les Anglois." [In the service of the Dutch men and English men]
Ringleader of a mutiny attempt banished to Robben Island
The former Governor of Batavia, Hendrik Bouwer, arrived in Table Bay in 1636 and ruled on a mutiny attempt which happened on one of the ships in the Dutch fleet. The ringleader was keelhauled, banished and abandoned on Robben Island.
Khoe leave Robben Island. By 1638, due to the depletion of food (penguins, seals, cormorants and eggs) on the island, the Khoe moved back to the mainland.
Khoe re-introduced to Island
The Europeans had grown use to the safe haven and services offered on Robben Island, so in 1639 Johan Albrecht von Mandelslo deposited fifteen Goringhaicona Khoe on Robben Island, 4 men, 8 women and 3 children, to continue to offer a service.
Jan van Riebeeck and Captain Sijmon Turver land on Robben Island
With a permanent Dutch settlement established on the mainland, van Riebeeck attempted to land on Robben Island in July 1652 and almost got killed in the rough seas and south-easterly squall. On 14 September, he successfully landed on the island with Captain Sijmon Turver, exactly where today's harbour stands. Soon after this, regular parties were sent out to collect penguins, eggs and seals.
Robben Island used as a food station. At this time, The Cape mainland settlement was still insecure and inhospitable, and Robben Island was used as an emergency 'pantry' for the Cape Town VOC garrison. The garrison at this stage was largely comprised of Javanese Mardijkers. A vegetable garden was established and flocks of sheep introduced.
An overseer of the island was appointed by van Riebeeck, Corporal Robbeljaert who was put in charge of a few shepherds who were also sent to the Island. Rabbits and dassies were also introduced, and in June 1655 van Riebeeck also organised pig breeding on Robben Island. Several more men were then sent to the island to engage in caring for the animals and gardens.
Lighthouse erected and the first prisoners introduced
A small Platform was erected on the highest point on Robben Island, upon which a fire was kept burning at night, when ships of the DEIC could be seen off the port. This was also the first year that an official group of prisoners was sent to the island, even although Robben Island had not yet been established as a convict workstation.
The first recorded ship wreck is that of the Schapejacht in August 1660.
Robben Island becomes a formal prison
Jan van Riebeeck concluded his time as Commander at the Cape in 1662. He was succeeded by Zacharias Wagenaar, who was attributed as the man who promoted Robben Island as a formal organised prison where prisoners could be put to hard labour quarrying for blue stone and lime.
Convicts escape the prison on Robben Island
Five Khoe convicts achieved what was thought to be impossible. They managed to steal a rudderless boat and successfully made it back to the mainland.
Two slaves sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island
Two slaves were sentenced for stealing food (vegetables) and had their ears cut off. They were also sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island where they were kept in chains.
Exiles and other captives kept in slavery
An Englishman scholar, David Tappen, captured by the Dutch and forced to serve on the Dutch ships, spent time on Robben Island and wrote the following:
"On Robben Island are set the rebellious rulers brought from the East Indies, where they must end their lives in very bad conditions, since many of them who are now at the Cape must now work like slaves for their living, and often get more kicks than ha'pence for their hard tasks such as carrying wood and stones, burning lime etc. To this Robben Island come not only the rebellious East India rulers and other black folk, but also rebellious Dutch who are kept in slavery there for some years."
Slaves prisoners on Robben Island. Prisoner lists of 1686 show numerous slave names as prisoners on Robben Island, names such as Jacob van Macassar and Arrie van Bengal. Many Chinese slave/convicts were also sent to Robben Island.
Successful escape from Robben Island by swimming to the mainland. In 1690, a convict by the name of Jan Rykman successfully escaped Robben Island by swimming to the mainland.
Falsely accused sent to Robben Island. Dorha, a successful Chainouqua trader, (loyal to the Dutch) and his brother-in-law (of the Hessequa) are banished to Robben Island by Simon van der Stel and the Council of Policy, on trumped-up charges (latter repealed by the DEIC) as a means to rob Dorha of his amassed cattle and curtail his successful trading system.
Dorha, as a successful trader in the inland areas, was a threat to the corrupt company officials who were dominating the trading processes. Dorha was a victim of a volte-face plot, which saw the company officials ally themselves to his enemy Koopman, leader of the Soeswa. In 1695, Dorha was exonerated and released from banishment on Robben Island but never regained his former prestige and was murdered by Koopman in 1701.
Shipwreck on Robben Island
The yacht Dageraad from Goude Bay ran ashore on the Western side of the island. Sixteen of the crew were drowned.
Sheikh Noorul Mubeen was exiled from the Indonesian Archipelago and banished to Robben Island, but escaped by unknown means. Legend has it that he swam to the mainland where he was found by slave fishermen and hidden on the mountainside. A Karamat shrine in Oudekraal marks his burial place.
The Prince of Madura was banished to Robben Island with 7 of his followers, after being captured by the Dutch in the Straits of Madura. He died on Robben Island in 1754 and his body was returned to Batavia after a petition by his son.
Tuan Matarah Sayed Abduraghman Motura (Matirim) was exiled from the Indonesian Archipelago (probably Sumatra) and banished to Robben Island where he died. A Karamat shrine on Robben Island marks his burial place and is visited by pilgrims.
A Prince of Tadore in the Tiranate Islands, Tuan Guru, who traced his ancestry to the Sultanate of Morocco, together with Callie Abdul Rauf, Noro Imam and Barodien were said to have conspired with the English against the Dutch.
They were captured by the Dutch and brought to the Cape as state prisoners and incarcerated on Robben Island. Tuan Guru was later released to the mainland in 1792, and Barodien and Rauf died on Robben Island. Taun Guru died in 1807 and a Karamat Shrine marks the place of his burial on Signal Hill.
Tuan Nuruman arrived in Cape Town as a slave and was housed in the Slave Lodge. In 1786, he was found guilty of assisting a group of fellow slaves in an escape bid and sent to Robben Island. Years later, when released from the Island he settled as a freed slave and officiated as an Imam. He died in 1810 and a Karamat Shrine marks his grave on Signal Hill.
Murray installed himself as a Whaler on the island, adjacent to the present-day harbour, and settled in Portugal Cave with his wife and children. Since then the Bay was called Murray's Bay.
The first lepers were moved (from Hemel en Aarde, near Hermanus) to Robben Island and housed in existing buildings.
Cemetery below Minto's Hill is established, and acts as a burial ground for staff of the island during the Leprosy Settlement and Convict Station until 1923.
Robben Island Lighthouse was built on Minto Hill. In 1938, a self-contained generating plant was installed to produce electric lighting of 464 000 candle-power. A fog-horn was installed in 1925.
Langalibalele, Chief of the AmaHlubi, and his people worked in Kimberley and in the process acquired arms. Fearing an uprising, the Hlubi were ordered to surrender their arms by the British. They refused and fled towards Basutholand for refuge but were waylaid by troops at the top of the Drakensberg Pass. Langalibalele was brought back in chains and tried for treason and rebellion. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. The Cape Town township Langa is named after him.
A small restaurant and refreshment station is opened. The Island population was then 1070 of whom 800 were male.
A gardening campaign was started by Dr. Impey and Lady Loch, and was promoted by the famous brewer Mr. Ohlsson who paid for a plantation to be laid out on the western shore at his expense. Much of this was destroyed in the Second World War for security reasons.
Over 70 000 trees were planted at this time including thorn trees, tamarisks, firs, pines, wattles, manatoka, cypresses, acasia, salinga and belhambra. The gardening campaign was at its strongest from 1882-1912.
During this time, Franz Jacobs lead a protest and wrote to petition the Queen to improve the terrible Leper conditions on Robben Island.
Chaplain and Dr. Ross oppose female lepers being brought to the Island because of intercourse between male and female lepers.
The postmaster brings out the first Robben Island Newspaper, the Robben Island Times. It cost two pounds a year to produce.
Female leper is block built to the north of Murray Harbour.
New buildings are built for male lepers, in the area that stretches from village to the leper cemetery south of Murray Bay.
Tramway line is built. An 18inch gauge tramway line was laid from the boathouse to the general stores and ran to all of the key off-loading points of the island. Trolleys were drawn by mules.
A Library is opened with 1548 volumes. A magistrate's court was also started and the librarian doubled as resident magistrate, Mr L Powys-Jones. The Island school ceased to be a mission school and became a government school.
Guest house is built for the resident chaplain of the Dutch Reformed Church
The post of chaplain became necessary with the increase in leprosy patients.
Residence built for the Commissioner of the Island. The Commissioner was brought in as an administrator when the surgeon-superintendent of the hospital had difficulties subduing violence and dissatisfaction among leprosy patients regarding their forced residence on the Island. The building would later become a mess hall for officers in WW2.
The Church of the Good Shepherd is consecrated in 1895. This was a Leper Church for men designed by Sir Herbert Baker. A carved figure of the Good Shepherd was brought from Oberammergau (famous for religious plays). A Leper church for women was called the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. A Catholic Chapel and a Dutch Reformed church was also established.
Faure Jetty completed. This jetty acted as a replacement jetty as the one below an old Convict station was destroyed by storms.153 trips were made in 1896 by the steam ferries Tiger, Magnet and Pieter Faure.
Leper Children and Anglican Nuns move to the Island. The Anglican sisterhood took over the children's leper home, catering for 26 children, into their care. They were recalled to England in 1926 and the children returned to the compounds.
After years of argument, the government agreed to remove the mental patients from the island so that they may be integrated into more humane institutions of care on the mainland.
Lepers removed from Robben Island
All leper buildings, with the exception of the Church of the Good Shepherd, are burned and demolished.
Island acts as Military base. The Department of Defence established fortress Robben Island to guard Table Bay. Murray Harbour, an airstrip and gun batteries were built. A maze of tunnels and bunkers were carved into the island. It was a military fortress in every aspect and home to thousands of servicemen and women.
The vast majority had no idea of Robben Island's painful past and little consciousness of the pain that would be coming, yet these men and women had been mobilised to fight fascism and Nazism in Europe.
Robben Island is used as a naval base. Robben Island was taken over by the SA Navy as SAS Robben Island with a population of 1200 - 1500.
Declaration of Robben Island as an Apartheid era Prison. The National Party Minister of Justice declared that the island would once more serve as a prison. As far as possible, all military installations were to be dismantled and relocated to the mainland. Access to the island was to be restricted and suitable prison structures constructed.
1961 - 1991
Maximum security prison for political prisoners.
1961 - 1996
Medium security prison for criminal prisoners. The first political prisoners began to arrive in 1961. These early prisoners had to participate in the completion of Robben Island's maximum security prison structures. Along with ANC and PAC prisoners, there were members of many other organisations including the SA Congress of Trades Unions, the SA Communist Party, South West African Peoples Organisation, National Liberation Front, the Non-European Unity movement, the Liberal Party, AZAPO, the APDU, BCM, UDF and others.
After the Rivonia trial in 1964, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and other senior ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Over the next three decades, thousands of political cadres of all persuasions and all ranks were brought by ferry to be imprisoned on the island. PAC leader, Robert Sobukwe, was initially sentenced to three years imprisonment; because the government were not prepared to release him, they passed a special law in parliament which allowed them to keep Sobukwe in prison without charges, indefinitely. It was called the Sobukwe clause.
After the unbanning of political organisations and the release of Nelson Mandela by FW de Klerk in 1990, a slow process of releasing all political prisoners unfolded.