The History of Robben Island

by on

The History of Robben Island – 1652 to 1991

Robben Island was made famous by South Africa’s former president, Nelson Mandela – imprisoned for sabotage during the apartheid era. The African National Congress (ANC), a national liberation movement, was formed in 1912 to unite the African people and was the driving force behind the struggle for political, social and economic change in South Africa.

For their participation in the liberation struggle, Nelson Mandela and other famous apartheid activists were incarcerated at Robben Island. Detainees included Walter Sisulu, former ANC Activist and Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa and leader of the ANC.

The island is situated in the bay of the ‘Cape of Good Hope’, Cape Town. In 1652 Jan van Riebeeck, a commander in the Dutch East India Company, was sent to setup a halfway station for the replenishment of ships trading between Europe and the East.
The island is a low lying rocky outcrop, 9.3km north of the mainland with a Mediterranean climate. It is flat and oval in shape, measuring only 3.3km long, 1.9km wide, and with an area of 5.7kms.

The northern and western sides of the island are virtually uninhabitable due to the violent winter gales and the tides. Many ships wrecked on the reefs offshore, were beaten to pieces and completely disappeared. These features confirmed the islands’ prison potential for Jan van Riebeeck.

The highest point, known as Minto Hill was where Jan van Riebeeck built the first navigation aid. Huge bonfires were built to warn ships of the reefs surrounding the island.
A lighthouse built in 1864, standing 18m high and still in use today, can be seen 24 nautical miles away. This is the only flashing light Lighthouse in South Africa. All the other lighthouses use revolving lights.

A maximum security prison

In 1959 the South African Prisons Department claimed it as a maximum security prison for political prisoners during the Apartheid era. The last of the political prisoners left the island in 1991. It was then changed to a medium security prison for criminal prisoners and closed its doors in 1996. In 1997 it became a South African Museum and National Monument.

Other usages

Robben Island was used as a prison until its closure in 1846. The British then converted it into a hospital for lepers, lunatics and the chronically ill. The hospital closed in 1931.
During the Second World War, it was used as a training and defense station. The harbour at Murrays Bay is still in use.

Tour Robben Island

Robben Island is a famous World Heritage Site. A trip to the island is an unforgettable experience offering a glimpse into the prisoner’s lives and times during the apartheid era.
Book your tickets online


The Table Bay Hotel, one of the best 5-Star hotels in Cape Town, has beautiful views of the harbour, Table Mountain and Robben Island. It is perfectly located at the V&A Waterfront providing easy access to some of Cape Town’s most famous attractions including Robben Island.
The hotel was proudly opened by South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela.
For bookings, please contact Central Reservations
Tel: +27 (0) 11 780 7810

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *