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What Is Robben Island?

Several species of wild deer are found on Robben Island.
Robben Island housed political prisoners during the apartheid era of segregation policies in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela spent most of his prison time in Robben Island.
The flag of the Republic of South Africa, adopted in 1994.
Robben island is a small island off the southwestern coast of South Africa.
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  • Written By: Ray Hawk
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 24 August 2014
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Robben island is a small island off the southwestern coast of South Africa 12 miles (19.3 kilometers) from Cape Town, and a 30-minute ride by ferry. It is part of the nation of South Africa that is most notable for its housing of political prisoners during the past colonial and more recent apartheid era of segregation policies in the nation. Nelson Mandela was held here for 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment and, during that time, wrote his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Geological changes over time have affected Robben island's accessibility, with it once being the peak of an ancient mountain that connected it to the African continent.

People are known to have lived on Robben island for thousands of years and the Dutch and British began using it as a outpost and prison in the 1500s during European colonial expansion. It is believed that roughly 12,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, sea levels were high enough to create a channel between the island and mainland that was not covered by water. Around this time, stone-age people were first able to walk to the island on foot and settle there. Colonial attempts at settling the island in the normal fashion failed, and its value was therefore seen solely as a location for both a penal colony and a colony for lepers.

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A long list of noteworthy prisoners, including the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma who was elected in a 2009 general election, had been imprisoned on Robben Island for ten years. The prison site at Table Mountain has also served to hold many indigenous African leaders, Muslim leaders, convicted soldiers from both the Dutch and British forces, as well as women and ordinary civilians. The site was declared a national monument in 1997 and a museum was created in the prison. The museum is quite active, and regularly runs educational programs for children and adults as well as conducting research into the island's history. Five years after apartheid was officially banished from South Africa, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Robben Island a World Heritage Site in 1999, with the goal of preserving it as a location of outstanding cultural importance to humankind.

Robben island's nomenclature is derived from a Dutch phrase, Robbe Eiland, which means "seal island." Seals, penguins, and tortoises were plentiful on the island at the time of its discovery by the Dutch. In more recent years, it has become home instead to 132 species of birds and 23 species of mammal, including several types of wild deer, such as springbok, fallow, and eland deer. The prison warden at the time introduced antelope and giant tortoises onto the island in 1960. A notable native species on the island was the African penguin, which became extinct there due to human action in the 1800s, but has since been reintroduced and has successfully established breeding colonies.

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