Robben Island A Brief History

Nelson Mandela spent the years between 1964 and 1982 in Robben Island prison located offshore from the major South African city of Cape Town.  The contrast between Cape Town, one of the world's most beautiful cities and the barrenness of Robben Island could not be more profound.  Robben Island has a long history as both a prison and a military base.  In this posting, I will discuss a few key points about the history of the place where Nelson Mandela spent many years of his adult life and what prison life was like for a black South African.

 
Robben Island is a very small island located on the southwest tip of Africa, 6 kilometres from shore.  The island itself is approximately 475 hectares or 1173 acres in size and lies only a few metres above sea level.  Here is a photograph of the island with Table Mountain and Cape Town in the background:
 
 
The first recorded landing on the island was in 1498 by Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama and his fleet.  Since that time, ownership of the island has changed several times as colonial powers waxed and waned and gained and lost control of the area. 
 
Let's take a look at how the use of Robben Island changed over the centuries.  Around 1525, Robben Island was being used to house Portuguese convicts and by 1615, English convicts were imprisoned there.  Since the Cape area was settled in the mid-1600s by Dutch settlers, Robben Island has primarily been used as a prison.  Between 1652 and 1795, Robben Island was used to house criminal and political prisoners, East Asian exiles and functioned as a quarantine station between 1771 and 1790.  When the British took over in 1806, the island was used as both a prison and a hospital.  Lepers were housed on the island until 1931, mentally ill patients were hospitalized until 1921 and those with chronic illnesses were hospitalized on the island until 1891.  Because of its remote location and the fact that the waters surrounding the island are very cold and rough, it was regarded as secure because infectious and dangerous cases could be isolated.   The British imprisoned African political prisoners from Natal and the North Cape areas between 1855 and 1890 and also imprisoned Xhosa chiefs who rebelled against their rule.  Between 1910 and 1961, the Union of South Africa used the island as a hospital, prison and training base for the Army and Navy.   During World War II, it was used as a training and defence station, providing a base that offered coastal defence to South Africa.  In the years between 1961 and 1994, Robben Island served as a prison housing two populations of prisoners; a maximum security prison for political prisoners between 1961 and 1991 and a medium security prison for criminal prisoners between 1961 and 1996.  In 1997, under South Africa's new democratic government, Robben Island was converted to a museum and national monument. 
 
Let's take a look more details of the island in the 1960s.  It was during the early 1960s that the population of political prisoners on Robben Island mushroomed as the South African regime passed increasingly draconian legislation; it is estimated that there were several hundred political prisoners in place by 1964 when Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders arrived.  The prison population multiplied during the Soweto uprisings in 1976 and again during the early 1980s when civil unrest spread through the country.
 
Prisoners were classified according to a system of four privilege levels, A to D.  Category D prisoners, the least privileged group which included Nelson Mandela, were not allowed access to any newspapers or radios.  They could only receive letters twice a year and those letters could not exceed 500 words in length.  They were allowed one half-hour visit every six months and no physical contact with their visitor was allowed.  As well, they were expected to do hard labour in the prison limestone quarry.  Working conditions at the quarry were very harsh; there was no shelter and the dust from the manual quarrying operation caused lung damage.  Here is a photograph of the quarry taken after the prison closed:
 
 
Daily life in the prison was harsh and days were long.  Prisoners were woken at 5:30 am.   Hard labour was required of many prisoners and humiliation was used to keep all prisoners in line.  South Africa's system of apartheid was replicated within the prison walls; all prison staff was white and all of the prisoners were "black", consisting of African, Coloured or Asian backgrounds.  Daily amenities were portioned out according to "colour"; African prisoners received only 12 ounces of corn meal daily while both Asians and Coloureds received 14 ounces.  Africans received only 5 ounces of meat or fish four times weekly compared to 6 ounces for both Coloureds and Asians.  In the early years of Mandela's imprisonment, African prisoners would only receive one teaspoon of sugar daily compared to 1 1/2 for Asians and Coloureds.  Demands by African prisoners changed this policy.
 
Despite the hardships, prisoners were allowed to enrol in correspondence courses offered by the University of South Africa and other distance education institutions.  Some prisoners even earned college degrees.  Those prisoners that were better educated taught those prisoners with less education.  There were also programs that improved the physical health of prisoners including soccer, rugby and tennis.  
 
Key prisoners during the apartheid area included African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela and the founding leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), Robert Sobukwe.  As well, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Billy Nair and Ahmed Kathrada, key members of the ANC were imprisoned on Robben Island.  Here is a copy of Billy Nair's prison card, showing his prison number (prisoner number 69 in the year 1964 (64)):
 
 
Let's close by looking at some photographs of Robben Island showing various aspects of the prison and how rudimentary the facilities were.  Please note that the last photo is Nelson Mandela's cell.
 
 

 

In 1999, UNESCO declared Robben Island a World Heritage Site, putting a final end to the island's use as a prison, a fitting end to a place of pain.
 
Click HERE to read more of Glen Asher's columns 

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