While living in Sea Point in the late 1980s I developed a fascination for watching the lighthouse signal on Robben Island at night. My flat was on Beach Road facing Table Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. While looking out to sea I often thought of Nelson Mandela’s political imprisonment there for his opposition to apartheid.
Built in 1864 the lighthouse is on the highest point of the island – Minto Hill. It’s the only South African lighthouse that uses a flashing instead of revolving signal light. The light is visible for 24 nautical miles. The name Robben Island (Robbeneiland in Afrikaans) means “seal island”. It’s a flat oval-shaped island about 2 miles long and 1 mile wide. The Dutch settlers were the first to use Robben Island as a prison but British colonists later used it for that purpose as well.
In 1845 lepers from the Western Cape near Caledon moved there and formed a leper colony. During World War II the island was fortified with guns and became part of Cape Town’s defense system.
Robben Island and nearby Whale Rock are surrounded by shallow, treacherous waters that have caused many shipwrecks. Heavy surf from the Atlantic Ocean plays havoc with any vessel unlucky enough to get caught on the reefs. In the late 17th century a Dutch ship carrying gold coins to pay Dutch East India Company employees ran amok a short distance off Robben Island. The gold that went down in that shipwreck is worth millions of dollars. Over the years some gold coins have washed ashore but the treasure remains buried in the ocean protected by the violent surf.
In January 2010 I visited Robben Island as a tourist. It was a thought-provoking experience. The ferry ride from Victoria and Albert Waterfront was unforgettable and there was a calm and comfortable sense of camaraderie among the eclectic group of passengers of many ages, races, and nationalities. Our South African guide was a former political prisoner who lived on the island for over 10 years.