When Dutch navigator Jan van Riebeek anchored off Table Mountain in 1652 at the end of a perilous journey in three small ships, Robben Island, South Africa, was a low-lying smudge and no competition for the sweet waters tumbling down the mountainside. One visit was sufficient to convince him that the sand dunes and rock intrusions less than 3 meters / 10 feet above sea level were only good for oily ‘robbe’ seal meat and indigestible penguins he detested.
A Dumping Ground for People
When indigenous resistance to his expeditionary force continued unabated, the island seemed an obvious place to dump uncooperative tribal leaders whose attitudes did not sit well with european-centred society. After a leprosy plague exploded on the mainland in 1845, the abandoned shacks and solitary graves made a perfect isolation hospital for lepers from which there was no return. When they too died, Robben Island belonged again to gulls and seals and penguins. During World War II the military mounted a naval battery with huge gun platforms salvaged from dreadnought battleships.
Cape Town from Robben Island
The first time I visited the island I was a boy scout on summer camp in 1958. Our ‘Skipper’ was a senior naval officer with the power to make it happen. Being a loner, I used the opportunity to explore the massive abandoned gun enclosures, ruined leper hospital buildings and lonely graves. On one occasion, I stood close enough to the high walls of a prison holding long-term convicts for one to call down to an eleven year old boy and ask for help escaping.
Three years later Nelson Mandela and his government-in-exile arrived to serve a life sentence and begin to remake the history South Africa is renowned for now. They must have felt unbelievably lonely with Cape Town a scant 10 kilometres / 6 miles distant the only view they had of what they left behind.
A Dry and Dusty Place
Things are different on Robben Island now. The ferry is sheer luxury compared to the naval patrol boat we took, and visitors are no longer free to take a half-day stroll around the island shore to sit and contemplate. They can however take a bus tour of the dusty wasteland where prisoners once broke rocks and visit Nelson Mandela’s prison cell, before they return to Cape Town with increased awareness of the foolishness of humankind.
Nelson Mandela Revisits His Cell