Steeped in Cultural History – Cape Town & Robben Island

ocean view of robben island

To anyone who has seen the coastline where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic, there is no mistaking the city nestled within the harbor, nor the surrounds for they are absolutely unique. Between Table Mountain’s majestic rise over the city, the seemingly unreal turquoise of the oceans as they lap onto the shore, and Robben Island standing starkly against the deeper water, there may be fewer places where so many cultures have collided just as much as the two oceans.

A visit to Cape Town is hard to complete in just one trip, there are so many places to go and things to see. Trusting in a touring company like Cape Tours helps get you to all the highlights of the area without feeling as though something major has been left out. By checking the site for specials that offer trips to Cape Town and the surrounding areas, you can always be sure to see the most during your stay in South Africa. The most notable are generally the mountain, and the waterfront but there’s one place you can actually feel the history while inside. Robben Island.

If you’ve never heard of Robben Island before, this will read like a work of fiction. There was a protagonist in the story, and antagonists, plenty of supporting characters and a very rich tale in the end, though no story is ever complete without a lot of struggle and strife, and plenty of uncertainty. This story is no exception. If you have heard of Robben Island before, but would like to know more, read on.

The story begins with a conveniently placed bit of land just outside what would be modern day Cape Town. Though many credit the Dutch with the first habitation of the island, further back in 1488, the island was actually discovered by a man named Bartolomeu Dias, a Portuguese sailor. After the discovery, the Portuguese used the island for a refreshment point, and was later disputed and taken by the Dutch and British colonial traders. They used the island as an outpost and a prison, placing people who they deemed as undesirable within the confines of the island. The traders were mostly concerned with placing violent individuals within the prison. With the arrival of Van Riebeeck in 1657, who was employed by the Dutch East India Company, the island was used further by his free burghers, VOC officials, and French Huguenots after the Edict of Nantes was revoked by Louis XIV. They used the island to enslave the indigenous peoples of the area, particularly the disaffected natives to the area and Muslims that were deported from the East Indies and along other trade routes.

In the beginning the island was used primarily for slaves and prisoners of war. They wen to work in stone quarries and to farm lime for building what would be Cape Town, and their numbers swelled after soldiers and sailors who became convicts were sent there, as well as political and religious leaders from the East Indies. After the British took the island from the Dutch in 1795, and after bitterly battling over a rich trade hub took it again in 1806, they kept up the use of the island as a prison, housing military prisoners who were primarily white, as well as criminals and political prisoners who were primarily black. Only one-tenth of the prisoners were women but they didn’t stay on Robben Island long, they were moved to a Cape Town prison. In 1846 the prison was closed and it became largely a place for the infirm and the sick or insane. Mostly used to relieve pressure on local hospitals, and to house lepers, they still took in those who were exiled for important political purposes.

During the time the prison became more of a hospital, it should be thought of as less a hospital and more of a guarded “fend for yourself” situation where the prisoners took care of each other, or not at all. There was little care, inadequate food or bedding, and racial segregation was in place within the hospital as much as it was on the mainland. Robben Island quickly became the largest leper colony in the Cape, housing over a thousand sick people. Lepers were not given the same treatment as anyone else sick would and this was before a lasting cure had been found for leprosy, so when deformities became apparent and they were identified as being a leper, they were instantly outcast, taken from families and banished to the island. In a small church that the lepers built themselves in 1895, lies the graves of lepers left to die, which are now partially obscured by grass. This all came to an end in 1931.

Though ideas to make the island into a resort community were discussed, it all came to a halt with the start of World War II, at which point it was reserved exclusively for the use of the military in 1936. The island became the first line of defense against attack from the Bay by any navy, and was equipped with coastal artillery as well as harbour facilities. By the time the war ended, it was held by the military for training exercises and by 1951 was taken by the South African Marine Corps and changed hands to the South African Navy. By 1959, the island was claimed again as a prison by the Prisons Department as a maximum security prison for prisoners of a political nature, who had been sentenced under the Apartheid regime, as well as other criminals, none of whom were white except the wardens. Enter our protagonist, Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela became known as “Tata Madiba” by his people, named for the Xhosa clan he came from, and Tata meaning “father” which is considered a term of endearment, and respect. He began as a youth in the ANC youth league, but unlike many of his black peers he was a barrister, he had a car, he had privilege in a time many did not, though he was just as subject to segregation as everyone else with the same skin colour. He chose at an early age to group up with other like minded people, who still remember him fondly as someone who stood up for what he believed in, what was right and fair for not just the black people in South Africa, but for everyone in South Africa. (read a more detailed account)

He was imprisoned for 27 years on Robben Island, after finding him guilty of treason to overthrow the Apartheid regime, and while serving his time there, not only managed to teach the other inmates how to show respect for themselves, but also to their would-be oppressors. He was a leader despite never having sought that position, and in the face of cruel treatment, and harsh conditions on the island, he never lost his self-respect, and managed to remain happy, and calm, and waited for his wisdom to be allowed the freedom he had fought for so hard. Despite hearing the wardens shouting in Afrikaans, ‘Dis die Eiland! Hier gaan julle vrek!’ (This is the Island! Here you will die!), he managed to not only keep his sanity and spirit, but inspired all around him to learn about their captors, learn Afrikaans to better understand all of South Africa’s people, and even won the admiration of those who guarded his cell while there.

Many fought the injustices of the prison, and made arrangements for one nasty individual who was abusive to the inmates to a degree that went far beyond malicious to be removed, and also allowed bedrolls to be replaced by actual beds. Improvements were made where possible but life at the prison was anything but soft. In the end, when Nelson Mandela was released, and worked alongside those in the Apartheid regime to begin an era where all of South Africa was united as one, worked for the betterment of mankind, and whose differences didn’t matter, the people rejoiced. He became the first black President, and he ushered in many changes for the people. Most who described him said he was naturally sunny, warm in a way politicians were not, but Mandela never sought to lead, he sought what was right. He even declared Robben Island a World Heritage Site recognized by UNESCO so it would stand for so many to signify what was hard won, and to remember history.

To go see Robben Island, with a backdrop of the city of Cape Town, and blotted behind by the giant shadow of Table Mountain is to truly feel the history under your feet as you stand where so many others were before. To recall what times must have been like when the world was a far more violent place, when wars decided man’s fate and to fight for what you believed in meant sacrificing the things that mattered most, like watching your children grow up in Mandela’s case, and come out wise enough to lead the entire country to prosperity. You cannot help but look around and marvel at a structure that has stood for centuries, people who have inhabited the island, been and gone, and left behind naught but their footprints on the soul of the place.

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