A Timeline of Robben Island from 1846 to 1891

By Robben Island Museum

Robben Island Museum

Infirmary and population graph by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Discover more about the history of the Island which was a general infirmary and prison between 1846 - 1891.

1846: Dr John Birtwhistle came from England to be the resident Surgeon on Robben Island.

1847: Birtwhistle was appointed as the first Surgeon-Superintendent in full charge of the General Infirmary. Buildings of the Infirmary were modifications of existing structures - some of the wards had previously housed prisoners. Women were kept apart from men but there was no racial segregation at this stage, people living with leprosy were declared ‘mad’ or chronic sick. There were 13 staff members and 194 patients.

Architectural drawing by Public Works DepartmentRobben Island Museum

A Government Commission of Inquiry was instituted to investigate allegations of mismanagement and to report on the treatment of patients on Robben Island. Birtwhistle’s method of forcible restraint by chaining and beating was considered outdated. 1855 Birtwhistle was dismissed for malpractice and embezzlement of funds; he was sent back to England in disgrace. Dr James Minto replaced him as Surgeon-Superintendent.

Illustration of Chief Siyolo by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Xhosa chief, Siyolo (grandson of Ndlambe and son of Mhala) and his wife were sent to the Island following his capture during the aftermath of the War of Mlangeni.

Tribal chiefs on the Island (1869) by A. GreenRobben Island Museum

The Ngqika chief, Maqoma, and his wife Katyi, were imprisoned on the Island. Maqoma’s half-brother, Xhoxho, Mhala (son of Ndlambe), Phato (of the Gqunukwebe line) & his son Dilima, Stokwe (of the Mbalu chiefdo) and Fadana were also imprisoned there after the Cattle Killings of 1856-1857, which were part of the “Wars of Disposession” between the Xhosa and the British. The Chiefs were housed on the Island in huts covered with tarpaulins.

Mental patient on Robben Island by UnknownRobben Island Museum

A court case in Cape Town focused attention on the continuing cruel treatment of mental patients on the Island. Public criticism of deplorable conditions there increased. At this time there were 19 staff members and 396 patients.

Nursing staff at the general infirmary by UnknownRobben Island Museum

A Parliamentary Commission recommended the removal of the General Infirmary to the mainland, but the Government considered this too expensive and decided to improve the existing buildings instead. More trained staff were appointed to care for the sick, and their salaries were raised. The untrained staff, however, still received the same wages as domestic servants in Cape Town.

Historic painting of the village by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Dr William Edmunds took up the post of Surgeon-Superintendent and tried to implement a more en-lightened system of caring for the mentally ill, emphasizing kindness rather than physical restraint and harsh medicines, such as emetics and purgatives. He introduced recreational activities such as dances, painting, fishing and cricket for the patients. It was claimed to be difficult without straight-jackets or confinement in cells.

A photograph of the Lighthouse by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Provision for a Robben Island Lighthouse was made in 1861. Built on Minto Hill, 30 metres above sea level. The hill was named after Dr James Clephane Minto, the surgeon superintendent during the Infirmary period, 1855-1862. The hill, known as “Vuurbergh”, was probably the same site that Jan van Riebeeck chose to send signal/beacon fires whenever DEIC ships were sighted at nightfall. Designed by John Scott Tucker and constructed by Joseph Flack, Clerk of the Works. It was completed in 1864 but the delay in alterations to Green and Mouille Points postponed its inauguration until January 1865. First lit at 1914 on Sunday 1 January 1865 by Mrs. Flack (wife of Joseph Flack). Originally a 4-man station but it was reduced to a 1-man station in 1982.

There are 75 steps to climb to reach the lantern. Character of light: Occulating, 1 flash of 5 seconds duration every 7 seconds. Type of light: Electrical.464 000 Candle power. 18 metre circular masonry tower painted white. Equipped with a radio beacon and a fog signal. The light is fitted with a red sector (arc of 240º-351º) which covers the notorious Whale Rock. Position: Latitude: 33º48 52,20S; Longitude:18º22 29,25 E. The Lighthouse did not operate during WW II.

Convicts carrying passengers (1900) by UnknownRobben Island Museum

The old stone jetty, built in 1827, was destroyed in a gale.

A branch station of the Breakwater Convict Station was established on Robben Island. Long-term convicts were sent there to provide labour for carrying stores and passengers from the boats to the shore, and for building and road works. This pattern continued to the 1920s.

Women's asylum by UnknownRobben Island Museum

A new wing of the women’s section of the asylum was opened. It reflected a more caring attitude to the mentally ill, having day-rooms and more private wards. Men declared ‘insane’, were divided into groups on the basis of conduct and ease of management, but the division reflected race as well - the section of the asylum referred to as ‘the Kraal’ was occupied mainly by black patients.

Amatolas Region by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Maqoma, Siyolo and Xhoxho were released from the Island. Maqoma, however, was recaptured following an attempt to reclaim his land near Blinkwater on the Kat River from the British who had occupied it during his absence. He was re-imprisoned on Robben Island in 1871, this time without his wife. 1869-1870 Captives in the First Koranna war - Piet Rooy, David Diedericks, Jan Kivido and Carel Ruyter - were sent to Robben Island. They were eventually released in 1884.

Illustration of slave labour by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Women with leprosy were removed to the Old Somerset Hospital (for about 15 years) because it was feared that they would bear leprous children through liaisons with the male lepers on the Island. When the women were eventually returned to the Island they were housed at Murray’s Bay, some distance away from the men. The number of staff had risen to 56, whereas the patients remaining on the Island numbered 358.

Chief Maqoma by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Chief Maqoma died on the Island. Just over 100 years later in 1978, his great-great-grandson retrieved his body from Robben Island so that it could be buried with due ceremony in the Amatola mountains.

Map of "Langa" and Chief Langalibalele by UnknownRobben Island Museum

The Hlubi chief, Langalibalele, was imprisoned on the Island following his unfair conviction for treason. Bishop Colenso intervened on his behalf and he was removed from the Island in 1875 and taken to the farm Uitvlugt, now part of Pinelands.

Early picture of Table Bay (1820) by UnknownRobben Island Museum

After the defeat of the Ngqika, Ndlambe and Gcaleka in 1878, the sons of the chiefs Maqoma, Mhala and Sandile were imprisoned on Robben Island. From 1880 onwards, these prisoners were transferred to the Breakwater Prison where they were released in 1883. Koranna leaders, including Thomas Pofadder, Jan Malgas, Jacobus Afrikaaner, John Adams and Klaas Pofadder, were taken as prisoners to Robben Island after the second Koranna War of 1877-1878. Some were transferred to the Breakwater Prison in 1880. In 1883, Koranna leaders on the Island refused an offer of conditional release. By 1890, all Koranna prisoners had been released or removed from the Island, closing this phase in the prison history of the Island.

Article in the newspaper by UnknownRobben Island Museum

The postmaster, Ross’ son, published the Robben Island Times for the interest of Islanders. Women lepers were sent back to the Island but were segregated in a new site to the north of Murray’s Bay.

Poor living conditions in the female leprocy ward by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Lepers were prevented from visiting the mainland to see friends. Their protests to the Colonial Secretary were not heeded as leprosy was mistakenly believed to be highly contagious. 1889 A Select Committee on the increase of leprosy in the Colony examined the conditions on Robben Island and brought the Governor’s attention to the poor conditions there. A critical article in the influential Blackwoods Magazine, published in Edinburgh, also drew attention to the need for improvements.

Leprocy ward on Robben Island by UnknownRobben Island Museum

General improvements were initiated following these adverse reports and in preparation for an expected influx of lepers. Buildings were repaired, painted and altered as necessary. A small restaurant was opened for islanders and visitors. Women ‘chronic sick paupers’ were removed to Grahamstown.

Leper population graph by UnknownRobben Island Museum

The total population of the Island was over 700 persons, which included 66 staff members. 1891 Dr Samuel Impey, a leprosy specialist, was appointed as Medical Superintendent. The chronic sick men were removed from the Island at this time.

Female Leper ward by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Growth and decline: 1892 - 1936

As a result of the Leprosy Repression Act, 452 new patients were admitted to a newly-built compound at some distance from the village. Rigorous separation of lepers was enforced; the living-area of women lepers was fenced and guarded. Segregation of races, previously not formalized, was now enforced among leper patients, although lunatics were not fully racially segregated.

Tramway on Robben Island by UnknownRobben Island Museum

An 18-inch gauge tramway was laid from the boathouse to the general stores and to all the key off-loading points on the Island. The trolleys were drawn by mules. A Magistrate’s Court was instituted, and a library was opened in a ward formerly used for the chronic sick. A gardening programme was introduced and thousands of trees and shrubs were planted. A quarantine station for 60 dogs was built.

Assistant warders by UnknownRobben Island Museum

The lepers rebelled against increased control measures. Some attempted to escape, others set fire to one of the wards. Additional staff were employed to maintain order. In 1894, there were 150 staff and 668 patients.

Church of the Good Shephard on Robben Island by UnknownRobben Island Museum

The Church of the Good Shepherd, designed by Herbert Baker, was built by the Diocese of Cape Town in the leper compound for men. The land that the church occupies remains the only privately-owned property on the Island.

Faure Jetty on Robben Island by UnknownRobben Island Museum

The new ‘Faure Pier’ was opened, replacing the old wooden jetty.

A leprosy ward on Robben Island by UnknownRobben Island Museum

The patient population had risen to 1 024 and staff to 250.

Soccer team on Robben Island (1911) by UnknownRobben Island Museum

By 1920, the Island had become a small town with a population of between 1 000 and 2 000 persons, including patients. There were schools, parks, a library, sports fields, tennis courts, recreation halls, a police force and fire department, as well as a dairy, piggery and a bakery.

The village on Robben Island by UnknownRobben Island Museum

By this time, some families had been living on the Island for over three generations and were attached to the way of life. The people living on the Island, however, were never able to purchase land and they were always subject to being transferred elsewhere.

During the late 1920’s, the cost of running the Island became an issue of concern. Medical knowledge of leprosy was growing and, after 1923, many lepers were released as being non-infective. As patient numbers dropped, running costs increased. By the end of the decade, it had been decided to close the leper institution on the Island.

Farewell of staff leaving Robben Island by UnknownRobben Island Museum

The mental patients were finally all removed from the Island to the mainland. The population of the Island was reduced to the lighthouse keepers and a few labourers. The remaining buildings fell into a state of neglect.

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.
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