Robben Island from prison to museum

It’s probably best known as the place where Nelson Mandela was kept prisoner for 27 years.  From the 17th to the 20th centuries, Robben Island served as a place of banishment, isolation and imprisonment.  Today it is a World Heritage Site and museum, a poignant reminder to the newly democratic South Africa of the price paid for freedom.

The Robben Island Museum, in what was once a political prison, is now a ‘cultural and conservation showcase for the new South African democracy’ – an international icon of the triumph of good over evil.

This bean-shaped island, the largest in South African waters, is situated in Table Bay with superb views of Cape Town 9 km away. Its high point is only 30 metres above sea level at Minto Hill, atop which is the oldest lighthouse in the southern hemisphere.

At this museum on Robben Island, you learn that the first recorded landing on it was in 1498 when Vasco da Gama’s support fleet took temporary refuge in its waters. Its situation also made it ideal as a place of quarantine and during much of the later British occupation it was used as a leper colony.  

But it is as a place of banishment and exile that it is notorious. Miscreant sailors were offloaded here, as were Muslim activists fighting Dutch colonisation in the Far East. The British, after taking permanent occupation at the beginning of the 19th century, continued this tradition by banishing troublesome traditional leaders opposing settler incursion into the interior.

And in 1960 the apartheid government used the newly constructed maximum security section as a political prison, which is now the museum. Prisoners were subject to hard labour and brutality, but few were broken and the tale of their experience is today symbolic of the triumph of ordinary people over an extraordinary crime against humanity.

Through strikes and endless protests, in 1971 the prisoners achieved the implementation of more humane conditions and were also allowed to study. Mandela himself describes his 27 years on Robben Island very impressively in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

The Robben Island historical museum is now a heritage site and tours leave from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. The tour include a boat trip across Table Bay, a visit to the Robben Island Museum and a bus tour of the island.

The boat trip takes about 30 minutes and the guided tour of the island about two hours. A former inmate acts as tour guide around the prison and will show you Mandela’s cell. There is a bus that takes you to the lime quarry, where the prisoners had to labour in the blinding sun without protection.

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