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A Travel Guide To Cape Town, South Africa – Part 3 – Robben Island

Updated on April 17, 2013

Nelson Mandelas Prison Cell on Robben Island

Nelson Mandelas Prison Cell on Robben Island
Nelson Mandelas Prison Cell on Robben Island

Robben Island has a long history spanning centuries. It has served many purposes in the past, starting out as a prison, post office and trading post for Portuguese sailors back in 1498. 1498 is the first recorded landing by a fleet of ships on the island. This fleet belonged to the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.

What is so special about Robben Island?

The most recent history pertaining to the island is that of a prison. It is where past South African President Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life as a political prisoner. He was sentenced to life in prison when he was convicted of sabotage and trying to overthrow the apartheid government of South African in 1962. He spent a total of 27 years in prison until his release spurred by international pressure on the South African government in the early 1990’s. Pres. Mandela’s release led to the first democratic elections in South Africa which was held in April of 1994. President Mandela held office from 1994 to 1995. I remember, I was there.

Is it still a prison today?

Today the island is a museum and a World Heritage Site. It is an important natural conservation area for birds such as the endangered African Penguin, other seabirds and mainland birds that breed here such as the Crowned Cormorant and Black Crowned Night Herons. There is a fair number of wildlife species that live on the island. Ostrich numbers are climbing, various antelope, lizards and snakes and marine life visit often. On the ferry trip across, look out for dolphin, seals and whales when in season.

How to visit Robben Island

Today tours to the island depart from the Nelson Mandela Gateway, near the Red Clock Tower on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town. The tour is around 3.5 hours long and includes two 30 minute ferry rides each way. Tours depart at 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm, weather permitting.

Robben Island Ferry

Robben Island Ferry
Robben Island Ferry

What to expect on the tour

After arriving on the island guests visit the Maximum Security Prison.
Guests will meet with an ex political prisoner.
Followed by a 45 minute bus tour around parts of the island, with commentary.
The tour ends with an option to visit Murray’s Bay precinct which include a Muslim shrine and the museum shop.

On the tour guests will learn about the harsh conditions that prisoners lived in, the work on the lime quarries and the ingenious ways that prisoners communicated to keep their political struggles alive. Watch the short video to see the lime quarries and more images of the prison and island.

A video glimpse of Robben Island

Part 1 and 2 of this series

To fully appreciate the appreciate the Cape Town series don't forget to view the other videos from the series:

Part 1 with video

Part 2 with video

Chronological history

Portuguese era

The island served as a prison for many Portuguese and British convicts between the years of 1498 and 1652. By the mid 1600’s more and more European ships were passing through Southern oceans, bringing new residents for the island.

Dutch era

Between 1652 and 1795 the Dutch East India company started using the island as a stop over to replenish their provisions on the way to East Africa. In addition the island was being used to house criminal and political prisoners, East Asian Exiles and was being used as a quarantine station for the sick.

British era

Between 1795 and 1846 the British, who now occupied Cape Town added military prisoners to the island.

Between 1846 and 1931 the island also became a hospital for lepers, the mentally hill and for the poor who suffered from chronic illnesses.

From 1855 through 1921 a variety of Southern African criminals (mostly political) were sent to the island

Union of South Africa and Republic of South Africa era

The island continued on as a prison and hospital until 1939 when the South African Army and Navy set up a training and defense camp.

Between the years of 1961 and 1994, (Apartheid South Africa) was the time when the island was used primarily as a maximum security prison for criminal and political prisoners.

The Admin building

The historic administration building
The historic administration building

A brighter future

On a much friendlier note the island was converted to a museum and national monument in 1994 and achieved World Heritage Status in 1999.

It is a place that tells a tale of bravery, determination and victory for human rights in South Africa and a must see for any traveler setting foot in Cape Town.

Tour hints:

Book well ahead (months) the tour fills up very fast.

Don’t pay cash for a ticket. If the tour is cancelled due to bad weather, cash purchases will not be refunded.

Take sunscreen, wear walking shoes and a wind breaker jacket. The wind off the coast can be chilly.

The commentary on the bus is interesting but some have complained about not being able to hear anything in the back of the bus. Find a seat near the front.

Robben Island off the coast of South Africa

Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa:
Robben Island, South Africa

get directions


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