Harry’s Offshore Post Office, with Seals

“Your isle, which stands
As Neptune’s park, ribbed and paled in
With rocks unscalable, and roaring waters.”

William Shakespeare, Cymbeline (1611)

Robben Island, despite its small presence, has played a great part in the history of South Africa. As islands go, it’s certainly not very big. A mere 3.3 kilometres in length, and 1.9 kilometres at its widest, the oval shape has a total area of 5.08 km². By comparison, tiny St Helena off the west coast of Africa has an area of 121 km², and that particular volcanic outcrop has been a waystation for vessels since 1502 when Portuguese navigator João da Nova stumbled over it on his way towards the tip of Africa. Our little Robben Island has none of the grandeur, or anything remotely like the geographical presence of St Helena. Located 7 kilometres to the west of Bloubergstrand in the centre of Table Bay, Robben Island is flat and only a few metres in height above sea level – it has been steadily eroded over time – leaving it as more of a navigational hazard than a desirable destination. The Atlantic swells push powerfully over the island and the nearby reefs, and at least 31 vessels have foundered or wrecked on the rocks since man took to the seas.

View of the iconic Table Mountain and Cape Town City from the shores of Robben Island.

Despite its perfect location with a staggering view of Table Mountain, it is not a place that lends itself to romantic visions of an idyllic island. UNESCO, in their World Heritage Description, solemnly label it a ‘sombre place’, and their focus is justifiably on its history rather than its geographical importance. The island was declared a National Monument in 1996, and the island and a buffer zone of one kilometre of surrounding ocean are legally protected as a National Heritage site. UNESCO aren’t wrong. Since the end of the 17th century, Robben Island’s main function has been as a prison. The first recorded prisoner was a Strandloper leader called Autshumato, or more commonly as Harry de Strandloper. Harry was possibly Cape Town’s first entrepreneur: in 1632 he moved to Robben Island with a small group of people, setting up a post office and a communications and liaison centre for European ships passing through Table Bay. Outward bound ships could communicate with returning vessels through Harry and his team, and the passage of mail back to home ports was facilitated. Just how Harry was rewarded is unknown, but after seven years he moved back to the mainland. Jan van Riebeek’s arrival in 1652 saw Harry set up a trading store on the Peninsula, mainly trading cattle for alcohol and tobacco. This was not a happy swap: alcohol inevitably fuelled resentment, and things got heated. Van Riebeek sent Harry back to Robben Island, this time as a prisoner. Harry then set another record: he was the first person to escape from Robben Island. He and a fellow inmate built or ‘borrowed’ a rowing boat about eighteen months later, and managed to reach shore. All was forgiven apparently, and Harry became an interpreter, and returned to facilitating communication.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the country’s first black head of state and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election.

The scene on Robben island had been set, and a stream of prisoners were exiled to the bleak surroundings. These included the leaders of Indonesian insurrections in what were then Dutch territories, and virtually anybody else who resented being treated as a slave; the two leaders of the slave revolt aboard the slave ship Meermin, Massavana and Koesaaij, among them. The history of Robben Island was (and still is) inevitably tied up with the political history of the Cape Colony, and successive governments all had different plans for the island. In 1896 John Murray, a Scottish whaler, opened a whaling station on the north eastern shore in a sheltered bay that is still known as Murray’s Bay. The present day harbour is on this spot. The whaling didn’t last long: in 1819 the British, who had usurped the Dutch, were engaged in the Xhosa Wars, and what better place to send captured chieftains? The first of these was Makanda Nxele, who fared less well than Harry when trying to escape – he drowned on the shores of Table Bay.

The next use for Robben Island was as a leper colony. In an era when leprosy was not only untreatable but also a social stigma, ‘out of sight – out of mind’ was the medical solution. Lepers from Caledon were transferred to Robben Island, initially on a voluntary basis. This changed with the 1892 Leprosy Repression Act (that term defies intelligent comment), and lepers were forced to take the journey. Eleven buildings were constructed to house lepers, and over 600 were exiled in the course of the next two years. The Second World War saw a change in plan: lepers were no longer seen as a threat to society, but the Nazi’s were, and so Robben Island had a makeover to become a gun platform protecting Table Bay and Cape Town harbour from invasion. Hitler was otherwise occupied, so the 9.2 inch and 6 inch gun batteries did not see action. The only German battleship to round Cape Point was the Graf Spee, and they steamed past (in both directions) with nobody any the wiser.

Then, in 1961 the government decided that Robben Island revert to its original function, and this decision has played a major part in the subsequent political history of South Africa. There can’t be too many people unaware of its most famous occupant, Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 years languishing in the cells and working on the quarries that had been established as early as the 17th century. In addition to Madiba, two other future presidents were held on the island: Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma. The final closure of the prison in 1996 was a relief to the entire nation, but the stain on its history will never be erased. As a tourist attraction – even a ‘sombre’ one – Robben Island is a must visit for any student of history or politics. Or conservation. Robben Island means ‘island of seals’, and the wildlife aspect is of considerable importance. The original large colony of seals were, as is usual with humans, exterminated, and in 1654 rabbits were introduced to the island to feed passing ships. (By that we mean as food, not as restaurateurs.) A new colony of seals was introduced in 1983; grew to over 16 000 individuals by 2004 and then, for reasons unknown, started diminishing. The best guess is the depletion of the natural food supplies to – you guessed it – human overfishing. The rabbits, as would be expected, had no such problems, and have swelled to unmanageable numbers – over 25 000 on that small area of land; making it pretty difficult for any other species to get a toehold.

Waterfront Charters Sailing in the Bay cruises are perfect for getting a sailor’s view of Robben Island. It is not hard to put yourself in the shoes of a 17th century matelot as you tack past the shoals: on that small stretch of land, now with its own lighthouse, were victuals and possibly even letters, thanks to Harry. The history of the island may be difficult to come to terms with, but it certainly cannot be ignored.