History Of Robben Island Prison

The history of the Robben Island Prison that supported and perpetuated the apartheid system of South Africa.

488/64: that was to be his name for the next eighteen years. Nothing more than a number, nothing more than quantitative object that was to be constantly watched, counted, and punished. As Nelson Mandela was led off of the boat, he realized that this cold, barren, lifeless island they called Robben Island was to be his new home. A cold wind blew off of the ocean, sending salt-water spray into the eyes Mandela and his fellow inmates. Most of those around him, including himself, had been imprisoned for the outspoken and activist tendencies against the apartheid government of South Africa. Walking through the gates, guards on either side, more guards watching down from the watchtowers, Mandela saw his life disappear before his eyes. All that remained were guards, towers, and miles upon miles of razor wire that surrounded the compound. This was to be his life; this was to be his home. He walked on stoically.

Robben Island was discovered in 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias anchored his ship off of its coast. For many years after this Portuguese, British, and Dutch sailors used this island at the tip of Africa as an outpost and resting location. Letters were often left on the island under certain rocks so that those on the next voyage could pick them up and read them. The outpost island became known as Robben Island (meaning Seal Island in Dutch) probably in the early 1500's. In 1591 the Khoikhoi tribe, a nomadic tribe that hunted around the tip of Africa, tired of unfair trading practices of the Europeans, attacked their outposts on Robben Island. However, they were no match for the gun power of the Europeans, and thus lost. The Europeans, in order to punish the survivors of the battle, left the tribe on the island without any food or water. These unwilling tribe members became the first of many prisoners of Robben Island.

In 1652 Jan Van Riebeeck, working for the Dutch East India Company, saw in the island an important refueling site on the trading route between Western Europe and India. Sailors began to stop on the island in order hunt seals for fresh meat and to trade with locals for cattle and sheep. This refreshment of supplies was important in order to avoid such deadly diseases as scurvy and dysentery. Throughout the 1650's and 60's the island became more and more popular. Dutch sailors began to colonize the island, mining stone for buildings and lighting warning fires at night in order to keep boats from running ashore on the islands rocky coast. The first political prisoner was Autshumato in 1658, who was exiled to Robben Island, simply because he was taking back cattle the people believed to have been unfairly confiscated by European settlers.

In 1795 the British Empire, jealous of the huge sums of money that the Dutch were making due to the trade between Europe and India, declared that the tip of Africa was now their property. Warships fired on the island, ending 150 years of Dutch rule. The British also decided to use Robben Island for the unruly and unsuitable. Where they sent criminals of varying penalties: army deserters, murderers, thieves and political prisoners. The 1800s were mainly composed of conflict between the Xhosa people and the British government over the issue of land. A war known as The Hundred Years War began and many battles called the Frontier Battles occurred, most of the Xhosa captives were taken to the Island.

As time went on Robben Island became more of hospital which housed the mentality ill, lepers, and diseased. In the 1800's homeless, prostitutes with sexually transmitted diseases, alcoholics and even people who were too old or sick to work, were classified as lunatics. These mentally ill were housed in the same poor conditions that the prisoners were housed in. They received no treatment for their illnesses and they were subjected to internal violence, rape, and torture. In 1892 the lepers organized a protest against the British rule. Franz Jacobs, the rebellion leader, wrote to the Queen of England demanding better conditions on the island. Troops were sent to end the contest, and succeeded when Jacobs was forced to admit that he was wrong. However, things apparently got better within the next few years for the lepers. They were allowed visitors, mail, and eventually the buildings where they resided were renovated and repaired.

1930 saw the recognition of Robben Island for its importance as a military base. The lepers were sent to mainland hospitals and most of the buildings were burned to eliminate the chance of an epidemic. The water system was improved, modern buildings were constructed, and some of the most advanced military weapons were developed on the island. However, the importance as a prison did not die. In 1961, with the National Party in firm control and the passage of the Apartheid Act, Robben Island again began to be used as a political prison.

The conditions of the prison facilities at this time reached an all-time low. Sixty prisoners were crammed into a cell made to house twenty men. They were woken up at 5:30 every morning and forced to leap across the compound naked. There was a strip full cavity search every morning. Breakfast consisted of a cold cup of coffee and porridge. Men were forced to eat on their haunches. Guards were instructed to beat anyone whose butt touched the ground. During the day the prisoners were forced to do hard labor on the mainland. Jobs consisted of moving a mountain of dirt from one location to another and then back again. Deaths from starvation and disease were common, and deaths from beatings were even higher.

Robben Island was said to be Hell, a place of desolate banishment from which few returned. The prison was an institution that perpetuated segregation and racism. Hundreds of thousands died for the color of their skin and the tenor of their ideas. In 1991, with the free election of Nelson Mandela, Robben Island was officially closed forever. Today the island exists as a reminder of the horror of the past and a tribute to those who gave their lives and their freedom for the right to liberty. Oliver Tambo, former ANC leader, said in 1980: "The tragedy of Africa, in racial and political terms, [has been] concentrated at the southern tip of the continent - in South Africa, Namibia, and, in a special sense, Robben Island." It can only be hoped that with the removal of the apartheid system and the fall of the National Party this statement will no longer be true. Robben Island has changed its image from that of total despair to that of hopeful expectation. No one knows what the future of South Africa holds. However, everyone is certain of its past, and everyone quietly prays that the nation will not return to where it started.

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