Looking Back in Time at Robben Island’s History was first published on 26 November 2013 and updated on 22 October 2018 by Leigh Hermon.
Reading time: 9 minutes
Robben Island is synonymous with Nelson Mandela, but less known is that this small island in Table Bay is a site of geological importance.
Robben Island is known to many as a jail, the place where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 of his 27 years in prison. But its story began long before Mandela was a twinkle in his father’s eye, 560 million years ago or thereabouts, when it was part of the ancient Adamastor Ocean.
To give you an idea, Earth was born some 4.5 billion years ago. Back then, the sedimentary bedrock of Robben Island was formed when quartz silt from mountains to the south-east was transported to the sea. The island’s final journey was via deep-sea turbidity currents – slurries of fast-moving sediment-laden water, the remnants of which can be seen today at Van Riebeeck’s Quarry.
I’m on a geological tour that has been organised by the Friends of Iziko Museum. The short ferry ride takes half an hour, as the seagull flies, from Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront. We wave goodbye to frolicking Cape fur seals as the vessel thunders across the narrow gap, our binoculars focused on what could be a southern right whale or a dusky or Heaviside’s dolphin. Instead it’s a reef – the nemesis of many ships.
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From Murray’s Bay Harbour we pass beneath an arch. Billboards paint pictures of prisoners, shackled together, unsure that they would ever leave. The island feels deserted, the setting sun transforming a neglected building as gulls scream overhead. Nearby, the rusty Faure Jetty leads towards the sea. It was built in the 1890s, replacing a wooden jetty washed away in a storm.
Choosing to walk instead of waiting for one of the ancient rusty buses to take us to our lodging, we find that the island is tiny. Oval-shaped and 507 hectares, it’s just over three kilometres long from its north to south and about 1.9 kilometres wide. Visitors are not allowed on the northern part, nor may they walk elsewhere on the island without permission.
We reach the Moturu Kramat, one of a sacred circle of six that protects Cape Town from natural disasters. It was built in 1969 to commemorate Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the Prince of Madura, one of Cape Town’s first imams and an exile to the island in the mid-1740s, where he died in 1754. Muslim political prisoners would pay homage at the shrine before leaving the island.
The road passes a lonely leper graveyard, a quiet reminder of people who were essentially prisoners on Robben Island, due to their medical condition. In 1845, they were moved from the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley leper colony outside Hermnus to form a new colony on the island. A general infirmary was established for them, as well as for lunatics and the chronically ill.
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Nearby and surrounded by a fence are Sobukwe House and a row of dog kennels the same size as the prisoners’ cells. Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, lived here in isolation between 1963 and 1969, when he was released due to cancer of the throat and lungs, but placed under further house arrest in Kimberley.
Around the corner is the medium-security prison where our group will spend the night. And appreciating how prisoners must have felt, we are each assigned to a dormitory, to carry our single bags to our bunks. And now it’s quiet time when some of us escape the stifling walls to take a walk while others gather in the courtyard, excited or apprehensive.
After breakfast the next morning, our group of about 20 are introduced to our guide Llewelyn Damon and his son Raaiq, who accompany us for the day on the geology tour. We start with a short walk to Langbaai, where a colony of penguins preens and squawks, resembling waiters at a wedding. Shimmering black rocks, part of the False Bay dolerite dyke swarm, protrude from the icy Atlantic; there’s rippled sandstone nearby and ‘gold’ glittering in grey slate.
“Fool’s Gold or pyrite, a blend of iron and sulphur,” explains Dr John Rogers, formerly of the University of Cape Town’s Department of Geological Sciences, as he points at the latter glittering in pock-marked rock. These are drill holes for quarryman’s wedges. Nearby are ripples normally made by waves and seen on beaches, in sand, but we are far from the sea and this is not sand.
In the beginning
“Imagine fast-moving slurries of sediment-laden water, probably triggered by submarine earthquakes, rapidly deposited. These were then perfectly preserved. Geologically they are part of the Tygerberg Formation of the Malmesbury Group.” He explains that about 130 million years ago, Robben Island lay in the middle of the supercontinent Gondwana. “When it began breaking up it gave birth to the geologically young South Atlantic Ocean,” he says. “In the tense cracks that were formed, from east-south-east to west-north-west, molten dolerite magma was pushed up from below. At mega temperature of about 1 200°C, the magma cooled and crystallised to form the vertical, wall-like dolerite dyke seen at spring low tide.” He explains that the rock is dark due to black minerals such as magnetite.
There are also two quarries, the most famous the lime quarry where, standing in the sun against the calcrete backdrop, everyone is reminded how Mandela and other prisoners developed permanent eye damage and lung problems from working in the fine dust. To one side is a cave, used as a toilet, a resting place and to store prisoners’ tools. They would teach each other politics, languages, history, current events as they were working, by writing in the sand. Their slogan was ‘each one, teach all’. At the entrance to the quarry is a cairn built on 11 February 1995 from rocks of different colour and size by 1 200 former political prisoners, in memory of those who worked in the quarries.
The other quarry on the south-east of the island is named after Van Riebeeck and is another place of geological interest. About 300 years ago, dressed stone from this old quarry was used in the foundations of Cape Town Castle. Immaculately kept historical buildings blend with time-worn wardens houses. Buffeted by the elements, these functional houses have plants growing in their gutters and the water skips. Other buildings include a school used for staff children until it was closed in 2011, and the commissioner of the island’s residence – there was no governor – built in the 1890s and now a conference venue.
Robben Island has two churches – the Church of the Good Shepherd, designed by Herbert Baker and dated 1895, and the Garrison Church erected in 1841 by Captain Richard Wolfe, who was commandant of the island. On the highest point, Minto’s Hill is the 18m-high lighthouse, commissioned in 1865 and later converted to electricity. The hill is 30m in height and was apparently named after a surgeon-superintendent of the general infirmary. Along the coastline, Table Mountain can be seen from every vantage point, shimmering against white-capped waves with penguins, pebbles and lichen-splattered rocks in the foreground.
Meet the residents
With screaming Hartlaub gulls overhead, walking on the island is like being in an aviary. Tern varieties, cormorants, ibises, black oystercatchers and African penguins are a few of the species. The original African penguin colony was exterminated by 1800 but in 1983 the penguins recolonised the island.
Robben Island is home to seals, the only large animals there when the Dutch arrived, and many rabbits. The early settlers used to release rabbits to provide meat for passing ships and these multiplied, leading to the devastation of wildlife and stripping the island of almost all indigenous vegetation.
In 1958 Lieutenant Peter Klerck introduced a variety of animals including tortoise, duck, ostrich, geese and buck, which included exotic fallow deer. Nowadays 23 mammal species remain, including small herds of buck, lizards, geckos, snakes and three species of tortoise. In recent years a culling programme to reduce rabbits and fallow deer has created much angst among animal lovers.
Final stop for us is the prison complex where ex-prisoners regale us with stories of life on the island. Standing in the main courtyard of B-Section, in front of a picture of Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela wearing shorts, Ntozelizwe Talakumeni, 62, points to a garden in a corner of the courtyard. “That’s where Nelson Mandela hid the manuscript of his book, Long Walk to Freedom. Go inside the long corridor to find the unnumbered fourth cell on the right where Mandela spent his nights,” he says.
And so we go to the tiny cell where on the floor we find a mat, blanket, metal mug, plate and a bucket. Ntozelizwe’s recollection rang in our ears, “We missed the sound of children’s voices.”
Looking to take a tour of the island? Visit the Robben Island website to see tour times and prices.
Words and Photography Karen Watkins