Robben Island is famous for its long history of notable political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela. Even though Nelson Mandela may be the most well known prisoner associated with the island, Robben Island’s history extends far beyond the Apartheid era. Dutch colonists were the first to use the island as a prison, and in the years that followed, it was also used as a leper colony and a quarantine site.
Despite its violent history, the island is beautiful. On the half-hour ferry from Cape Town, our boat traveled next to swimming penguins and seals as Table Mountain disappeared in fog behind us. The Dutch translation of Robben Island is “seal island,” and when the ferry docked next to a colony of seals stretched across rocks, the name rang true two centuries later.
|Sometimes when you’re looking at the many fields of flowers on Robben Island, it’s surprising to see the gates, barbed wire, and watch towers spring behind it.|
|The view from Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. If you look closely, there’s a tree behind the fog. It was tall and sparse, and I imagine Nelson Mandela knew every inch of it.|
During our tour, we learned about many of the political prisoners, including Robert Soweto. Robert Soweto was imprisoned for six years in solitary confinement. To deter him from befriending guards, guards were rotated every four weeks. A former linguistics professor, Soweto lost his ability to speak after his release.
We saw the lime quarries where prisoners of all ages chipped away at stone for hours under all kinds of African weather. After visiting the island and understanding only brief glimmers of its history, I was struck by how many people have called it home. When the leper colonies were relocated, many refused to leave. Even today, former guards and prisoners are neighbors on the island. There must be something truly special about a place if so many people have elected to stay long past their imprisonment.
For more information on Robben Island, you can visit one of the many virtual tours on the Robben Island Website.