BACKGROUND ON THE
National Heritage Site declaration: 26 May 2006
Inscription as a World Heritage Site: 1999
This well-known World Heritage Site is most famous as a political prison but has a rich multi-layered history spanning over 400 years. The island and its buildings, especially the Apartheid era maximum security prison, bear witness to the triumph of democracy and freedom over racial and social oppression.
Located 6km off the coast of Cape Town, in Table Bay, the island was used as a replenishing station on the sea route to the East during the 16th century, as fresh meat and drinkable water could be obtained there, while avoiding interactions with indigenous inhabitants of the Cape. After Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival in the Cape and the establishment of the Dutch settlement on the mainland, the island became a place of banishment, imprisonment and exile for criminals and for political prisoners opposing Dutch rule in the East Indies.
The prison was closed and a general infirmary established on the island when Britain annexed the Cape in 1805. Due to pressure on mainland hospitals, chronically and mentally ill patients and lepers were sent to Robben Island. The island remained a leper colony until 1931 and was then reserved for military defence with the approach of World War II.
In 1959 the island became a maximum security prison mainly for black political prisoners and criminals. The first political prisoners to arrive on the island included those convicted at the infamous Rivonia Trial, most notably Nelson Mandela. The last prisoners left the island in 1992 and the prison finally closed in 1996 and was subsequently converted to a museum.