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The prison on Robben Island is one of the best known remnants of the African apartheid regime. The island became world famous after Nelson Mandela was imprisoned here for 18 years.
Robben Island is named after the many seals encountered here by Dutch settlers. As early as 1652, the island was used by the East Indian Company as a prison for unruly sailors. Strong currents and ice cold water made Robben Island a perfectly secure location. In the almost 400 years that the island served as a jail, only 3 prisoners managed to escape and reach the mainland alive.
Because of its isolated location, from 1846 to 1931 Robben Island was a hospital for the sick and insane, later becoming the largest leper colony in the Cape. During the Second World War the island became a military base, and in 1959 the island was transformed into the highest maximum security prison of South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island in 1964 after being accused of planning a guerrilla war against the apartheid regime. During his imprisonment, Mandela often had to labour in the lime quarry on the island; the blindingly bright light and fine dust in the white lime quarry left him with permanent eye damage. The prisoners used their time at the mine to talk about politics and exchange information.
Mandela wanted to encourage his fellow prisoners to keep further developing themselves. They regularly organized secret lectures about various topics. The prisoners also referred to the island as Robben Island University, later calling it Nelson Mandela University. In 1982, after spending 18 years imprisoned on Robben Island, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.
Robben Island became a museum in 1997 and is open to the public. Four times a day a boat sails from Nelson Mandela Gateway to the island, where a tour bus takes visitors to the most important sites. Along the way, the guides explain about the history, the residents and the natural environment of the island. The biggest attraction of course is the cell complex. The guided tour of the prison is given by former inmates, many of whom were imprisoned at the same time as Mandela.