Robben Island is one of the most infamous islands in the world. It was a penitentiary for almost 400 years, to keep criminals and exiles. Not many people know that it was the VOC (the Dutch East India Company) who turned the island into a penal colony in the early 17th century. It was particularly used to imprison unruly seamen.

There is still a grim atmosphere on the island
There is still a grim atmosphere on the island. Carolina Ödman

And between 1836 and 1931 it was used as leper colony. Then in 1959, the island was turned into a high-security prison by the South African apartheid regime.

Robben Island became world famous because of one particular inmate: Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned here for 18 years. There is a limestone mine on the island, where the prisoners were made to work. The bright reflection off the white limestone and the fine dust permanently damaged the eyes of the prisoners, including those of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela's cel on Robben Island
Mandela’s cel on Robben Island. Paul Mannix

Many prisoners have tried to escape by swimming towards the mainland, but only three (on record) made it ashore. The water around the island is ice cold because of the cold current coming from Antarctica.

The last political prisoners were released from the island in 1991, and the prison officially closed in 1996. Three years later it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

You can visit the island, and remarkably, many guides here are ex-prisoners of the island. You can take a fast ferry to Robben Island from Waterfront in Cape Town.

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