Robben Island Timeline: Part 1

Robben Island Museum

An exhibition covering the history of the Island. Part 1 starts from 700 000 BC until 1845.

Robben Island is an outcrop of rock formed by geological processes extending back in time many millions of years. Rising and falling sea-level periodically changed the appearance of the Island. Over the past 700 000 years alone, there were twelve periods of lower sea-level; during these periods the Island was linked to the mainland.

Robben Island, seen from Bloubergstrand

500 000-200 000 years ago Archaeological evidence shows that early toolmakers lived in the western Cape during this period. At times of lower sea-level the present Island would have been a hill on the mainland. Both the Island and its environs (the present Table Bay) would have been grassy savannah inhabited by lion, antelope, hippopotamus and other smaller animals, as well as extinct elephants and giant buffalo.   About 12 000 years ago Rising sea-level after the Ice Age again cut the Island off from the mainland. Since that time, it has remained largely unchanged, a part from a further rise in sea level between 7 000 & 3 000 years ago & the continuing formation of unstable dunes.
For thousands of years before its ‘discovery’ by European explorers, the Island would have been known to the indigenous people of the mainland. Unfortunately, their impressions of the Island are unrecorded and no archaeological evidence of early human use of the Island has yet been found. The earliest recorded impressions are those of sailors and settlers whose need for food supplies changed the Island irreversibly.   1488 Bartolomeu Dias anchored in Table Bay on his return voyage from Mossel Bay. Jan del Infante, the commander of Dias’s second ship, may have landed on the Island to kill penguins and seals but the account is not substantiated.
1503 Antonio de Saldanha and his men ‘killed many birds which are called sutilicarios [penguins] and sea wolves and tortoises, of which there was great abundance’ on the Island.   1525 A Portuguese ship is said to have left some convicts on the Island.   1591 Following hostility between sailors and Khoikhoi on the mainland, the Island was used by voyagers as a place of refuge. Letters were deposited and collected there.
1601 A sailor on the voyage of Sir James Lancaster, who had also visited the Island two years before in 1591, commented ‘In this iland there is a great abundance of seales and penguines, in such number as is almost incredible’. Lancaster left six sheep and two rams on the Island ‘for the reliefe of strangers that might come thither.’   Captain Joris van Spilbergen, sailing from Zeeland to the East Indies, named the island ‘Isla de Cornelia’ after his mother, but the name did not catch on. He killed ‘a quantity of Pinguins’ which he found ‘crisp of flesh and very tasty’, shot most of the sheep left there by Lancaster, and placed some rock rabbits (dassies) to breed on the island.   1604 An English sailor, David Middleton, described the Island as having ‘Pengwins, Wild geese, Ducke, Drake, and Pellicanes and divers other Fowle ...’   1608 Dutch Admiral, Cornelius Matelief, left sheep to fatten on the Island ‘so that if any should come which could get no trade on the mainland, they would find something here.’ The sheep he had found there had been unbelievably fat; the tail was 25 inches thick and weighed 19 pounds, being nothing but fat only ...’ He also found an ‘unspeakable number of sea-dogs’ 
1615 The establishment of a settlement at the Cape of Good Hope was considered necessary to ensure commerce with the East Indies. In 1611, The English East India Company had proposed sending one hundred convicts there to settle but in 1615 only ten convicts under the leadership of John Cross arrived. After clashing with the local Khoikhoi, they sought refuge on Robben Island. Their fate is uncertain but they may have perished at sea. Later convicts taken to the Island begged to be hanged rather that left there. 
1632 A group of twenty Khoikhoi, under the leadership of Autshumato, also known as Harry of Hadah, requested a British captain to take them to stay on the Island, and they remained there intermittently until 1640, by which time the food resources of the Island had been greatly depleted.
1652 The arrival of Van Riebeeck at the Cape marked the start of European settlement, conquest and expansion in South Africa. Robben Island was essential to the establishment of a refreshment station for the Dutch East India Company, as food sources on the mainland depended on trade with the Khoikhoi, who did not always co-operate with the Dutch. The Island became a pantry for provisions such as penguin eggs and meat, pelts and oil from seals (train-oil), and sheep.  Shale and lime from the Island were used for buildings on the mainland, including the Castle.   1654 A few men were placed on the Island under a superintendent, who became known as the Postholder. They built a shelter, dug a well, started a vegetable garden, and built a kiln for firing bricks. The Company appointed a shepherd to tend the sheep, and also introduced rabbits and pigs to the Island.
1658 Autshumato (Harry), an important middle-man and translator between the Khoikhoi and the Dutch, fell into disfavour with Van Riebeeck and was, therefore, placed on the Island, together with two other Khoikhoi captives. They were the first political prisoners on Robben Island.   1659 Autshumato escaped with a fellow Khoikhoi captive by rowing to the mainland in a stolen boat.
1665 -1669 Pieter van Meerhoff became Postholder and was accompanied by his wife, Krotoa (Eva), niece of Autshumato. She had been brought up in Van Riebeeck’s household and was a fluent translator of the Dutch and Khoikhoi languages. However, torn between two ways of life, she became an alcoholic. Krotoa returned to the mainland after her husband’s death on a slaving expedition to Madagascar but, in 1669, she was banished to Robben Island.   By this time the need for lime and slate had grown and increasingly convicts were being banished to the Island for hard labour. The Island was becoming primarily a place of punishment and exile.
1672 Five Khoikhoi were banished to Robben Island for attacking a shepherd but escaped the following year in a small 'jolletje'.   1682 From this time onwards, the Dutch East India Company banished prisoners and opponents to their rule to Robben Island. The first was a prince from the Island of Macassar. This initiated a long period during which many eminent Muslim leaders were exiled to the Island.
1742 The Prince of Madura was exiled to the Island, where he died in 1754;  his body was later returned to his home country.   1744 Muslim holy men, Said Akloeurie and Hadje Mattarm, were banished to the Island, which came to be regarded as one of the crucibles for the consolidation of Islam in southern Africa.   1745 Hadje Mattarm died on the Island. It is probable that this is the same person as Abdul Mattara, whose kramat is on Robben Island.  1749-1751 Daing Mangenam, Prince of Macassar, was exiled to the Island but was allowed to receive ten rixdollars a month towards upkeep. Less fortunate convicts, however, were subject to harsh beatings and other forms of brutality. In 1751, a rebellion was attempted but the leaders were caught and executed.   1761 According to the ‘Bandieten Roll’ there were seventy prisoners on the Island - 46 ‘Indiaanen’ and 24 ‘Europeans’.   1773 ‘Mohammedan priests’ and other notables from the East were confined in chains on the Island.
1777 A painting of the Postholders House and a panorama by Colonel Robert J. Gordon show that the Postholder had separate accom-modation from the other people on the Island. The convicts, ‘bandieten’, were kept in quarters known as ‘die Kraal’.   1789 One hundred and thirty-four prisoners - 31 European, 103 Indiaanen. Many of the Europeans were military offenders from the Fourth Anglo-Dutch war (1780-1784).   1794 The Dutch East India Company went bankrupt as a result of the financial burden of colonial administration, corruption and Dutch involvement in numerous wars. Commissioners were sent to the Cape to secure Dutch interests but the Company had lost effective control of the Colony.
1795 First British occupation of the Cape, The Royal Navy took men from the Island as crew.   1803 The Cape was returned to the Batavian Republic. An Amsterdam consortium was given sole rights in the whale fishing industry; John Murray, who had been whaling since 1795, was forced to cease operations.
1806 The British occupied the Cape for the second time. All Prisoners were removed from Robben Island to the Amsterdam Battery, because of fears that they would aid the French or Dutch in an attack on the Cape. John Murray petitioned the Acting Governor for permission to establish a whaling and fishing station on Robben Island and his request was granted. Whale oil and bone were exported to London between the years 1810 and 1815, when Murray died and his son took over the station.   1807 Prisoners were returned to the Island by British authorities. British military convicts were also sent to the Island. A Superintendent of Convicts was appointed. As under the Dutch, convicts continued to work in the slate quarries.
1819 The Xhosa prophet Nxele (also known as Makana or Makhanda), was banished to the Island for his role in leading the Ndlambe in an attack on Grahamstown in 1819. He was the first of many Xhosa leaders to be sent to the Island for resisting British colonial expansion.   Stuurman was placed on the Island again following further conflict between the Khoikhoi and the British in the eastern Cape.   1820 Makana and 30 other convicts, including David Stuurman and Hans Trompetter tried to escape in three of Murray’s boats. The boat carrying Makana capsized in high seas near Blouberg and only four men survived but were recaptured. Stuurman and  Trompetter survived. Trompetter was condemned to hang for his role in the conspiracy, and Stuurman was banished for life to the penal settlement in New South Wales.   Makana, who was among those drowned, became a lasting symbol of resistance. Today the Island is still sometimes referred to as the Island of Makana.
1823 Inmates who were classified as insane were removed to the Somerset Hospital, which had been completed in 1818 but which lacked special facilities for treating psychiatric cases.
1833 Captain Richard Thomas Wolfe of the 98th Foot Regiment was appointed Commander and Superintendent of Convicts on Robben Island.   1834 The buildings on Robben Island at that time were the Commander’s House, the officers’ quarters, soldiers’ barracks, the chief convict overseer’s shack, which was roofed with the ribs of whales, a bakery, a butchery, and workshops for smithing and for the preparation of flagstones.   The prison on the Island accommodated five prisoners in separate cells and 200 prisoners in communal cells. Black prisoners totalled between 100 and 130 at the time; White prisoners between 20 and 30. They worked ten hours each day in summer and eight hours in winter - quarrying, sawing, burning shells for lime, and doing building repair or work.
1841-1842 Under Wolfe’s supervision, the Anglican Church was built using convict labour. It is likely that the Anglican Parsonage and the present Clubhouse were built at this time. A small hospital for the convicts was completed in 1842.
1843 The increased need for manual labour, following the emancipation of slaves in 1834, led John Montagu, Colonial Secretary in charge of Roads and Harbours, to recommend that convicts from Robben Island be transferred to the mainland for hard labour on public works. Lepers from Hemel-en-Aarde and Port Elizabeth, sick paupers from the Old Slave Lodge in Cape Town, and lunatics from Somerset Hospital were to be placed on the Island.
Rules and regulations for prisoners on Robben Island: 1844 1. No Prisoner to be allowed to have in his possession any article of clothing not provided by Government. 2. No Tobacco of Snuff is ever to be permitted to be used by any Prisoner. 3. No Tea, Coffee, Sugar, Vegetables or any Article of food or luxury is to be allowed to any Convict, except what is sanctioned by Government. 4. No Parcels, Bundles, Boxes or in fact any Article of any description whatever is to be brought to the Island, and any Article introduced for the use of a Prisoner or Prisoners is to be seized by the Overseer who searches the Boat and delivered to the Commandant. 5. No Prisoner is allowed to receive or send away a letter or letters, a note to notes except by the permission of the Commandant, and all letters, notes etc. Coming to, and going from the Island are first to be delivered to the Commandant, ... 1844 A new set of rules for the prisoners was drafted by Captain Wolfe. Two years later, in 1846, he left Robben Island, so ending the period of military control.
Robben Island Museum
Credits: Story

Based on timeline exhibition done by John Berndt.
Redesigned by Kurt van Vrede and Mortimer Daniels.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Translate with Google