For any student of black history, Robben Island is an essential pilgrimage. It’s stuck in the middle of Table Bay a few kilometers off the coast of one of the most beautiful cities in the world: Cape Town, South Africa. Windswept, rocky and only 7 square km (under 3 square miles) Robben Island is washed by the waves of the Indian Ocean, lapping up from south.
“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” – Nelson Mandela
Low and brushed by the tides Robben Island is more than a shrine for the memories of apartheid. For example, it’s precambrian metamorphic rock is the site of a great deal of bird life and imported mammals from the mainland. Robben Island has a wonderful view of the city of Cape Town and must have served as a constant reminder of South Africans living there of those imprisoned and exiled there: political prisoners and lunatics.
It has served, in the past, as a leper colony first voluntary and then compulsorily after 1892. It was an early place of exile for the Dutch by the British and for the Muslim imam Sayed Abdurahman Moturu sent there in the mid 1740’s (see the memorial image below). As early as 1525 it is reported that a Portuguese ship dumped prisoners there.
As recently as 1994 the apartheid government of South Africa maintained Robben Island as a political prison. Nelson Mandela, later president of South Africa and still later Nobel Peace Prize laureate spent 18 long years there under appalling conditions. We visited his cell block and could peer into the cell furnished much as Mandela had left it in 1990. In 1999 Robben Island became a UNESCO world heritage site and today is a pilgrimage for those who reject the hatred of the past.
Today Robben Island is a popular destination for tourists and you need to book reservations in advance for the half hour ride in one of the boats leaving from Victoria and Albert waterfront.
Once you get there you board a bus and are given the broad tour of the island and then ushered into the cell block. First we see from the bus the black and white ibises nesting, the Muslim shrine, and the rock quarry where Nelson Mandela and others worked digging out stone and meeting in secret in the small cave you can see in the picture.
We see the “reunion cairn” was started in 1995 when Mandela and over 1000 political prisoners revisited Robben Island. Mandela picked up a rock, carried to the site of the cairn and dropped the rock, followed by the others. At each 5 year reunion, the cairn is enlarged.
Then we are led from the bus into the cell block…imagine: 18 years.
The Robben Island Gallery – Click on image to enlarge – hover pointer/cursor over an image for a bit more information.