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Prison in the sea

A short history of Robben Island

The journey from Cape Town harbour to Robben Island takes about 45 minutes. The little Prisons Department boat rides up and down the waves of the Atlantic Ocean as it travels the nine and a half kilometres that separates the Island from the South African mainland.

If you look behind you, you can see Cape Town’s Table Mountain covered in its tablecloth of mist. Ahead, there is only the deep blue sea. But further in the distance, a little speck of land can be seen. This is Robben Island, only a little over five square kilometres, but perhaps one of the most famous islands in the world.

As you come closer to Murray’s Bay­ – the island’s small harbour – the first thing you see is the lighthouse. At 24 metres, it is the highest point on the Island.

After the boat comes to a stop, every­one gets off and walks the short distance to the prison buildings. If you are going to the Island to serve a sentence-as I was in 1978 – these grey buildings are your new “home”.

I stayed in these prison cells for three and a half long years. In all that time, I saw only a small part of the Island­ when we went out to work on the road that circles the Island.

But during my “visit” there, I often thought about the history of Robben Island and how it came to be a jail for political prisoners. After my release, I began to read about it. What I found out I now write down on paper for others to read, so that they too can know the story of this place that has been the “home” of so many of our leaders.


The story of Robben Island begins in the 1400s with traders from Europe. The Portuguese, the English and the Dutch were all traders. They made long journeys to India and the Far East to buy spices which they took back to their own countries.

The route the traders sailed went round the Cape. On the way, they would pass a small island. At that time, the Island had no name but in later years it would be called Seal Island, Penguin Island, Isla de Cornelia and finally Robben Island.

In the early days, there were no people living on the Island. But the waters around were filled with whales, seals and penguins. As more and more ships sailed near the Island, the whales began to leave. Today, there are no whales in that part of the Atlantic and the penguins are in danger of dying out.

Jao de Infante, a captain under the Portuguese sailor Bartholomeu Dias, was the first person to set foot on the Island. In 1488, the sailors stopped to collect penguins, seals and tortoises which they clubbed to death and ate on their long journey to the East. Some years later, in 1503, another Por­tuguese sailor, Antonio de Saldanha, also stopped at Robben Island for a short while.

These were just passing visits, and it was not until 1652 that the Dutch East India Company-a company of Dutch traders – sent Jan van Riebeeck with 200 men to colonise the Cape and made it the property of this Company.


In the same year Jan van Riebeeck visited Robben Island. He found the soil on the Island good for grazing. It was not long before van Riebeeck took rabbits and sheep across and they began to breed. When they were big enough, the animals were taken to the mainland where they were slaughtered.

Van Riebeeck also started a farm on the Island. The vegetables were taken across to the mainland for the ships that stopped there on their way to the East.

The lsland was also rich in lime, which was used in building. Van Riebeeck soon built a stone-cutting factory on the Island-the first factory to be built by the Dutch in the Cape.

In the meantime, Cape Town’s population was growing bigger and big­ger. So was the amount of crime. By 1662 van Riebeeck had decided that Robben Island was the perfect place for a prison.

There, he thought, the prisoners would be out of the public eye – they could not be seen as they worked in their wrist and ankle chains. The sea around the Island would not only stop prisoners from escaping, it would also keep unwanted visitors away.

But it was not van Riebeeck who was to build the prison on the Island. Later that year, he left the Cape and his job was taken over by Zacharias Wagenaar, who straightaway started building a prison on the Island.


In 1662, the first prisoners were sent to the Island. Punishment there was shocking. Two examples show how cruel it was.

In one case, a Dutch woman who stole and killed two cows was sentenced to be “tied to a post with a halter round her neck, with the hides of the cows over her head”. Then she was flogged. Her property was taken away from her and she was also sent to Robben Island for 12 years.

In another case, two soldiers who stole rice were sentenced to be placed in a pillory (a wooden stand with holes for the hands and head) with a sack of rice over their heads. The soldiers were then given lashes with a whip and sent to work on Robben Island in chains for five years.

Meanwhile, South Africa was growing. The building industry needed stone for buildings, blue stone for roofs and shells for lime. There was not enough labour in the Cape and it was also expensive, so convict labour was used instead.

The prisoners on Robben Island were forced to work long hours of hard labour, breaking up stone in the quarries. The stones of many of the buildings that still stand in the Cape today were made from the blood and suffering of those early convicts.

Robben Island continued to be a prison even after the British took over the Cape from the Dutch in 1806. For the first time, black people who were fighting against British rule were also sent there – some as political prisoners and some as exiles. Many of them would spend their last days on the Island, because escape was almost impossible. But one or two did escape, among them Makana, a brave Xhosa warrior under Chief Ndlambe.


Makana or “Nxele” (left-handed) was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island in 1819, after leading 10 000 warriors against the settlers of Grahamstown.

Within a year of his imprisonment, Makana organised an escape with other political prisoners and slaves. The story goes like this: On Christmas Day 1820, Makana and some convicts overpowered the guards and took away their guns. They got into a boat and made for the closest point on the mainland. They nearly all escaped but they were unlucky.

The boat overturned and the men had to swim for their lives. All reached the shore except Makana who held on to a rock for some time, encouraging others to swim on, until he was swept off and drowned.

Meanwhile, the British administration in the Cape began to have different ideas about the Island. They still sent political opponents into exile there -like chiefs Macoma, Xlo-XIo, Umhala, Kenti, Delima and his brothers, Mate and Umpfafa, and Seyolo. But they started to transfer the ordinary prisoners to the mainland.

The reason why the Robben Island prisoners were sent back to the Cape was to fill the labour shortage. Once there, the convicts were again made to work very hard, often doing dangerous jobs like building mountain passes. Bain’s Kloof, Montagu Pass, Mitchell’s Pass, Swartberg Pass, Howison’s Poort and Meiring Poort were all built with the sweat of Robben Island prisoners.


In the place of the Robben Island prisoners, the Cape sent lepers, mentally ill people and poor and sick people to the Island. There, they were treated so terribly that one historian has called it an ugly stain on the history of our country.

The new people arrived at the Island in a boat with no cover. In those days, the journey could take as long as 22 hours if the weather was bad. Those who were afraid of the sea were often tied down to stop them from jumping overboard.

At the Island, the boat stopped 300 metres away from the shore because there was no jetty. The sick had to walk in the freezing cold water to the shore. Some helped each other by giving piggy-backs.

By the time they reached land, some of them were so tired that they could not even take their wet clothes off. It was not surprising that they sometimes died soon after coming to the Island.

There was no hospital on the Island for these people and they lived in the old prison buildings or in shacks. There were no proper toilets or places to wash and the sick lived in filth. Often, the treatment they were given for their sickness only made them worse. These were people who had not broken any law and were on the Island because they were ill. But they were still forced to do hard labour.

It was many years, starting in 1851 – and several commis­sions of enquiry later – before the government agreed to look into the conditions. But it took 80 years before the last patient had left the Island and the eight leper wards were burnt to the ground.


But it must be said that from 1890, conditions did improve on the Island. A new Superintendent was appointed and he put up buildings and fixed up and painted the old ones. A soccer field was built and patients could play games, go on walks and plant trees and flowers. There was even a dance once a month.

By 1920, the Island had become a little town. It had 2 000 people, a dairy, a piggery, schools, a fire department, a bakery, parks, a library and a mule­drawn train. But by 1930, the last of the lepers had left and the Island was deserted.

For the next ten years, Robben Island became the home of the lighthouse keeper and his family. There was some talk of making the Island into a home for the very rich, but this did not happen.

Shortly before the start of the Second World War, the Defence Force took over the Island and it became a fortress during the war. In the 1950s the South African Navy took over control.

In 1963, a year after Robben Island was taken over by the Prisons Department, political prisoners were again sent to the Island. It has remained under Pris­ons Department control ever since.

Perhaps the Prisons Department had the same idea as Van Riebeeck – that if the political prisoners were out of sight, locked up on the faraway Island, they would soon be forgotten. This did not happen.

In fact, the names of those leaders on Robben Island – like Mandela, Sisulu, Kathrada, Gwala, and many others ­have been an inspiration to us and have helped us to carry on the struggle.

Ntate Molefe Makinta was one of the early political prisoners to serve time on Robben Island. In 1964 he was sentenced to 12 years on the Island for sabotage and for furthering the aims of the ANC. At that time and in the follow­ing years, prison conditions were bad.

The cells were very overcrowded because the government had sent so many political opponents there. Prisoners slept on the floor on sisal mats. They were given only two blankets. They demanded beds from the prison authorities but by the time Ntate Makinta was released in 1976, he had still not slept on a bed.

The weather is cold in winter on the Island, but prisoners were made to wear shorts throughout the year. Ntate Makinta was given a pair of shoes that were too big for him. But he was lucky – some people got two shoes for the same foot!

Ntate Makinta remembers having to eat in the open where dust could easily get into the food. The prisoners were given only fifteen minutes to eat. The daily diet was half-cooked mielies, soft porridge and ‘phuza-mandla’ (a powder to supplement the diet). They were given meat only twice a week.

The International Committee of the Red Cross offered to supply milk and other good foods, but the Prisons Department refused. It was only in the early 1970s, after many complaints and hunger strikes, that the food improved. One hunger strike in the early 70s lasted 21 days. Prisoners lived on a pinch of salt, a sip of water and a teaspoon of brown sugar.

Prisoners were made to work hard. They worked at the stone-quarry, crushing the stones that were to build the prison cells. Every day each prisoner had to fill a wheel-barrow with crushed stones.

As punishment, prisoners would often get the “three meals” treatment – that is, no food for three meals. Along with this punishment, prisoners were put into isolation cells.

Certain prison warders were also sometimes accused of ill-treating the prisoners. Sometimes, they would be taken to court by the prisoners.

It was only in the mid-70s that less conservative warders were brought in and conditions became a little better. Prisoners were given the opportunity to learn skills such as tailoring, carpentry, plumbing and repairing shoes.


When Ntate Makinta was released in 1976, those comrades he left behind carried on the fight for better condi­tions, often by going on hunger strike. As a result, in the late 70s, beds were given to the prisoners as well as seven blankets. A dining hall was built for meals and the food improved a little bit -there were no longer half-cooked mielies. Prisoners were given chicken for the first time.

But the prisoners still suffered from not having contact with the outside world. For many years, prisoners did not get any news except from Radio South Africa. Later, in about 1980, newspa­pers were allowed for some of the pris­oners. But the authorities censored them, so sometimes they would arrive with parts of the paper cut out.

Letters from loved ones at home were also censored and prisoners could only write and receive a certain number of letters each month.

In my case, I was allowed two only. I was also able to get a visitor once a month.

These letters and visits were the high­light of the month and while we waited for them, time seemed to drag. When a letter or visitor finally came, there would be great excitement and joy. But after reading the letter or when a visit came to an end and we were back in our cells again, we would sit and think about the long distance that separated us from our family and friends.

Throughout my stay on Robben Island, entertainment and sport was an important part of our lives. On Satur­days we watched films and played soccer, tennis and rugby. Inside the cells, we listened to music on the prison loudspeakers, played table-tennis, draughts, chess, dominoes and cards.

The sporting year ended with the “Summer Games”. In the days leading up to New Year’s Day, four teams or “houses” would compete against each other in sports like athletics, javelin throwing and high jump.

On New Year’s Day we would have a “party”. We would come together and enjoy the cakes, sweets and dried fruits that we were allowed to buy for Christmas. People who had learnt to play musical instruments used to play songs and a few comrades would form a choir and sing to help us get into the “party” mood.


After I left the Island, other changes were made. For example, prisoners can now watch television and some are allowed contact visits (when pris­oners sit together with their visitors and they can touch each other). When I was there, all the visits were across a thick glass window. Almost all of these improvements were made because the prisoners fought hard for them – and because of the tireless efforts of the International Red Cross.

The years are long on Robben Island – and the sentences are enough to break the spirit. But we were never broken down – we continued to keep active by studying, reading and political discussions-and by the comradeship we shared. Most of all, we took courage in the fact that the struggle for freedom was continuing outside, stronger than ever before.

At all times, we knew that our people had not forgotten us. If the Prisons Department and the government have the same idea as van Riebeeck -that “out of sight” was “out of mind”-they are wrong. The comrades on the Island – and in all of apartheid’s other jails­ may be out of sight, but they are very much in our minds and they will always have a special place in our hearts!

Much of the information in this article, and all the photographs, except of Ntate Makinta, come from the book “Robben Island Out of Reach, Out of Mind”, by Simon A. de Vlliers.


lime – a white-coloured rock used for building or for making cement

convict – a prisoner

a quarry – a place which is dug out to get to stone, lime or minerals

leper – a person with leprosy, which is a disease that attacks the skin

fortress – a strong building used for protection against an enemy

drag – when time drags, it seems to go very slowly


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