Robben Island

The History

Robben Island was first occupied by the native south Africans, called the Khoi. The first Europeans to come to South Africa were the Phoenicians in about AD 400, which we know from cave paintings. The Chinese came in the 1400s, and the Portuguese in the 1500s. In 1510, a ship from Portugal headed for India landed at what is now cape town. The leader of this band was Francesco D’Almeida, the Portuguese viceroy of India. He and his men tried to seal cattle, kidnap a prominent Khoi princess and other women and children, and the people acted accordingly; thus began the battle of Salt River, where D’Almeida and 50 of his men were killed. Due to this chicanery, the Portuguese gave up attempting to colonize south Africa.

The Dutch, led by Jan van Riebeeck, were the first people to colonize the cape. They decided to throw all of the troublesome native leaders on Robben Island. This is when the island first became a prison.

The Tour

The Beginning

Once we had taken the boat to Robben Island, we started our tour. Although most people take a bus tour to Robben Island, we decided to take a walking tour. We were given Robben island ball caps and water bottles and started our tour. The first place we visited was the original prison, built during World War II. In the 1940s, Robben island was used as a military base in case the Germans decided to invade Cape Town. When the nationalist regime came into power in 1948, they converted the old soldier Barricks into prison and threw adversaries and revolutionaries into this new prison. The conditions in the old jail were despicable. There was no running water or sewage, and prisoners were forced to sleep in tiny cells with 20 or more people. The prisoners described it as like being in hell. They said that if you could avoid the old prison, you should thank your lucky star.

The Work of the Prisoners

As we walked, our guide talked about how the prisoners were forced to work in a limestone mine daily and told that they would stop mining once there was enough rock for all roads. However, every time the time came that they were told that they would be done with the work of the limestone, the warders would always say we need some more. This was mental torture to the prisoners. Thus the prisoners lived; imprisoned, forced to work long hours to mine hard stones that couldn’t be exported or used for anything outside of the island and could only be used for roads anyway, and forced to live in terrible conditions with sometimes no running water or sewage.

The Founding Fathers and the End of the Tour

Next, we were shown to the place where Robert Sobukwe had stayed during his seven-year imprisonment on Robben island. Robert Sobukwe was one of the less well-known freedom fighters who, among being a leader of the ANC and the founder of the PAC, among other things, was a very prominent leader in the struggle.

We then learned what it was like for the prisoners from an ex-prisoner, which was awesome. We also saw Nelson Mandela’s cell, and the tour was over.

Madiba’s Cell