On the 1st of December 1999, UNESCO listed Robben Island as a World Heritage site.
Robben Island (Dutch for ‘Seal Island’) was listed because it was recognised as an area of outstanding natural, historical and cultural value. It has come to symbolise, not only for South Africa and the African continent, but also for the entire world, the triumph of humanity over enormous hardship and adversity.
When the Dutch arrived to settle the Cape in the 17th century they soon began to put the island to use as a prison, a role it continued to play until 1991. Three generations of political prisoners occupied it in the second half of the 20th century. Among its early permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia. However in the 1840s, Robben Island was also chosen for a hospital because it was both secure (isolating dangerous cases) and healthy (providing a good environment for cure). The island was thus used as a leper colony and animal quarantine station.
The first prisoner on the island is believed to have been Autshumato in the mid-17th century. He was banished to the island in 1658 because he was taking back cattle the people believed to have been unfairly confiscated by European settlers. Autshumato was also one of the only prisoners to have escaped successfully. Makanda Nxele, a Regent of the amaRharhabe was also sentenced to life imprisonment at Robben Island after a failed uprising at Grahamstown in 1819 during the fifth of the Xhosa Wars. He drowned on the shores of Table Bay after escaping the prison. King of the Ngqika Xhosa, Maqoma was banished to the island twice together with his wife Katyi for 21 years. Maqoma’s grave is on Robben Island to this day. These chiefs and Kings are part of the Long March to Freedom procession at Fountains Valley in Pretoria.
During the Apartheid years Robben Island became internationally known for its institutional brutality. The duty of those who ran the Island and its prison was to isolate opponents of Apartheid and to crush their morale. However, those imprisoned on the Island succeeded on a psychological and political level in turning a prison ‘hell-hole’ into a symbol of freedom and personal liberation.