Robben Island (Afrikaans: Robbeneiland) is an island in Table Bay, 6.9 km west of the coast of Bloubergstrand, Cape Town, South Africa. The name is Dutch for “seal island”. Robben Island is roughly oval in shape, 3.3 km long north-south, and 1.9 km wide, with an area of 5.07 km². It is flat and only a few metres above sea level, as a result of an ancient erosion event. The island is composed of Precambrian metamorphic rocks belonging to the Malmesbury Group. Nobel Laureate and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid. Kgalema Motlanthe, who also served as President of South Africa, spent 10 years on Robben Island as a political prisoner, as did current President Jacob Zuma.
Since the end of the 17th century, Robben Island has been used for the isolation of mainly political prisoners. The Dutch settlers were the first to use Robben Island as a prison. Its first prisoner was probably Harry die strandloper (Autshumao) in the mid-17th century. Amongst its early permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia, and the leader of the mutiny on the slave ship Meermin. After a failed uprising at Grahamstown in 1819, the fifth of the Xhosa Wars, the British colonial government sentenced African leader Makanda Nxele to life imprisonment on the island . He drowned on the shores of Table Bay after escaping the prison.
The island was also used as a leper colony and animal quarantine station. Starting in 1845 lepers from the Hemel-en-Aarde (heaven and earth) leper colony near Caledon were moved to Robben Island when Hemel-en-Aarde was found unsuitable as a leper colony. Initially this was done on a voluntary basis and the lepers were free to leave the island if they so wished. In April 1891 the cornerstones for 11 new buildings to house lepers were laid. After the introduction of the Leprosy Repression Act in May 1892 admission was no longer voluntary and the movement of the lepers was restricted. Prior to 1892 an average of about 25 lepers a year were admitted to Robben Island, but in 1892 that number rose to 338, and in 1893 a further 250 were admitted.
During the Second World War the island was fortified and BL 9.2 inch guns and 6 inch guns were installed as part of the defences for Cape Town. It was also used as a prison.
Robben Island and nearby Whale Rock have been the nemesis of many a ship and its crew. The surf of the open Atlantic Ocean thunders continuously at its margins and any vessel wrecked on the reefs offshore is soon beaten to pieces and disappears. In the latter half of the 17th century a Dutch ship laden with gold coins earmarked for the payment of the salaries of employees of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) disintegrated on these reefs a short distance offshore, in relatively shallow but very restless waters. The gold today would be worth tens of millions of pounds sterling or U.S. dollars. A few coins have washed ashore over the centuries but the treasure itself remains in the ocean. It is protected largely by the almost ceaseless and violent surf. Many other vessels have been wrecked around the island.
The Moturu Kramat, a sacred site for Muslim pilgrimage on Robben Island, was built in 1969 to commemorate Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the Prince of Madura. Moturu, one of Cape Town’s first imams, who was exiled to the island in the mid-1740s and died there in 1754. Muslim political prisoners would pay homage at the shrine before leaving the island.