Robben Island was part of the Cape mainland and is actually the pinnacle of a now submerged mountain. It is linked by an undersea saddle to Blouberg and is situated approximately 11 km from Table Bay.
Robben Island is a vital part of the Khoi-Khoi people’s lives and heritage. They were the first South Africans recorded to have set foot on the Island – through banishment and imprisonment for resisting colonisation.
From as far back as the 1400s almost all those banished and imprisoned on Robben Island were sent there as a form of punishment for their resistance to oppression and domination that epitomised colonial and apartheid rule in South Africa. It is thus not surprising that they resisted the harsh conditions and treatment they were subjected to and persisted, with the same vigour and determination, to fight for their rights and freedom. Their resistance took many forms.
The first political prisoners to be placed on the Island were Autshumato, the leader of the “Strandlopers” Khoi-Khoi and two of his companions Jan Cou and Boubo. This happened on the 10 July 1658. This indicates the use of the Island, for political prisoners dates back to the time of the Dutch settlement at the Cape. The imprisonment of Autshumato and his companions was an effort to prevent dissent between the Khoi-Khoi and the Dutch.
The first prison register of the Island dates from 1728 and shows at that time there were 42 prisoners on the Island of which, 26 were European and 16 Indiaanen. The term Indiaanen was derived from the East Indian prisoners banished to the Island from 1682 onwards, but was used widely to include all non-white prisoners. Common criminals from the East Indies such as pirates, robbers, thieves and murderers were also banished to the Island.
Robben Island was used as a prison, for criminal and political prisoners, during South Africa’s historical colonial and apartheid historical era’s. The only time the Island was not used as a prison in its 500 year history was when it was used as a military base, which was between 1931 and 1960.
In the 1960s and later in the 1970’s, hundreds of black men opposing .Apartheid were sent to Robben Island for their various political activities. Prisoners, representative of a wide range of liberation organisations were incarcerated on the Island. After the Soweto uprisings in June 1976, a new wave of radicalised young political prisoners were sent to the Island. The last .political prisoners were released from Robben Island in May 1991.