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Robben Island is one of the biggest islands along South Africa's coastline and has been in use since the 1500s. It's name means 'Seal Island' in Dutch. The infamous island has been used as a leper colony, a prison, a military base, and an animal quarantine station. The most famous prisoner is Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who was imprisoned there from 1964 to 1982.
UNESCO declared Robben Island as a World Heritage Site in 1999 because of how the island symbolises the triumph of light, reason and compassion over darkness. Robben Island has also been declared a South African National Monument in 1996, a national museum in 1996, and a national heritage site in 2006.
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Portuguese and English sailors knew of the island since the early 1500s; they preferred the island to the Cape because they could easily get access to food. Ships that did not want to visit the mainland used the island as a refreshment station. Many of these sailors brought animals for breeding purposes to the island: sheep and dassies.
The English East India Company started the precedent of sending prisoners to the island in 1611 when he suggested the company send prisoners to the Cape. The 10 men escaped to Robben Island after many fights with the Khoikhoi. Many of the Cape’s future governors followed this example – Lord Charles Somerset sent lepers and other unwelcome people to the island. And Jan van Riebeeck’s diary tells us that his plans to send prisoners to the island started in 1652 already.
Things to do
Take a ferry ride from the Nelson Mandela Gateway to the island. The ferry ride is followed by a 45-minute bus ride around the island with a guide who provides commentary about the island. Visitors can explore certain areas independently: the kramat and the Museum shop. The tour takes visitors to Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell where they can take photos of the world’s most famous prison cell.
The Anglican church on Robben Island is the only privately owned building; the South African government owns all the other buildings.
Bartolomeu Dias was one of the first white men to set foot on Robben Island in 1488.
The island comprises 574 hectares of land and is home to more than 100 bird species as well as other small animals.
The highest point on the island is Minto Hill that houses the Southern Hemisphere’s oldest lighthouse.
The island is host to the Moturu Kramat that commemorates Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, an imam who died on the island in the 1700s.
Robben Island and Table Mountain are the only two World Heritage sites that are visible from each other.
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