Robben Island

a world heritage site
Robben Island

The 3,3 km long and 1,9 km wide island is situated in Table Bay, 7 km west of the nearest mainland at Bloubergstrand. The name of Robben Island comes from the Dutch meaning "seal island". Seals and birds were the only life the Dutch settlers encountered in 1652. Thousands of years ago, when Robben Island was still part of the mainland, the island was inhabited by people. The first recorded instance of Europeans on the island was in 1498. A group of Portugese sailors stayed overnight in a cave.

The birds were mainly African penguins. Two years later, in 1654, the Dutch introduced rabbits to the island to serve as a food source for passing ships. The rabbits decimated the penguin colony by 1800.

In 1983 a new colony of African penguin established themselves on the island. It is now an important breeding colony for the species with over 13 000 birds, the third largest colony of African penguins in the world. The island is also an breeding habitat for several threatened marine and coastal bird species. The rabbits are hunted and culled to keep their numbers down.

In the 17th century, for more than 300 years, Robben Island became a place of banishment and imprisonment. At first slaves and prisoners of war were sent there, to cut stone and burn seashells for lime for building the settlement of Cape Town. The prisoners who came after included civilians, soldiers, religious leaders, a prince, even South Africa's first democratic president, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

The first recorded prisoners were two Portugese convicts that were left on the island in 1525. In 1615 English convicts were left on the island. The famous Autshumato, also known as Harry die strandloper (meaning "Harry the Beachcomber") was also a prisoner on the island after disagreements with the first Dutch settlers. Before that he lived on the island from 1632 until 1640, acting as liaison between passing ships.

The prison was closed in 1846 and Robben Island became an isolation ward for leprosy, mental illness and other chronic Illness for which there was no cure and little treatment. The leper colony was closed in 1931.

Plans were made to develop the island as a holiday resort, but this was stopped by the start of World War II. During the war (1939-1945) the island served as a training and defense station. After the war it continued in use as a base for training for the navy.

In 1959 the island was taken over by the Prisons Department and established as a maximum security prison for political prisoners sentenced by the Apartheid regime, as well as ordinary criminals. The last political prisoners left the island in 1991 and the prison finally closed in 1996. Since then it has been developed as a museum.

Robben Island Map

Robben Island Map - Click to enlarge. (photo: Public Domain)

Robben Island was declared as a National Monument in 1996 and a World Heritage Site in 1999. Robben Island, and its buffer zone of one nautical mile, is legally protected as a National Heritage Site through, amongst others the National Heritage Resources Act and the World Heritage Convention Act.


  • Decimal degrees: -33.806078 (Latitude) 18.369478 (Longitude)
  • Degrees, Minutes & Seconds: S33 48 21 (Latitude) E18 22 10 (Longitude)
  • GPS: S 33 48.365 (Latitude) E 18 22.169 (Longitude)
  • UTM: 34S 256494 (X) 6256234 (Y)
  • Above sea level: 56 ft / 17 m

... also on Robben Island.