Thursday 18 July 2019

Robben Island - Abandoned in 1933

THE CAPE TIMES - 1933, 19 August
On NELSON MANDELA INTERNATIONAL DAY we celebrate the idea that each individual has the ability and power to make an impact to transform the world. Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his imprisonment at ROBBEN ISLAND – an island in TABLE BAY that had been desolated in 1930. In 1933 a correspondent of The Cape Times, painted a sad, but vivid picture of Robben Island as it was on that day – almost 3 years after the island was evacuated. (Government Officials and Lepers were removed from Robben Island in 1930 and all Leper buildings, were burned and demolished in 1931.)
The first sight that met the eye when landing from the jetty at Robben Island were grass grown streets. Everywhere was an unkempt and uncared-for appearance which typified the state of this once busy village.

The ENGLISH CHURCH had the appearance of having just been left by the congregation. Several books which might form valuable historical records were found in the vestry and the furniture of the church was complete and in good order. The Chaplain’s surplice was still hanging in its appointed place and several books were scattered over chairs and footstools as though the church had been evacuated an hour ago. Memorial brasses, marble table, sacred pictures, crucifixes and old records were uncared for. The little LEPER CHURCH stood alone amid streets which were razed to the ground. Inside the porch was a red dress hanging alongside a few sacred pictures covered with cobwebs. Who owned this dress, and what has become of her? The small stone building had seating accommodation for 50 – 60 persons. Stained glass windows let light filter through while two or three broken panes allowed creepers to enter and find peace from the chilling blasts which blew across the island. Birds made their nests on the ledges and befouled images, chairs and carpets. On a carved wood tablet hung on the wall, dozens of names were inscribed. This little church must have been an oasis for the poor haunted souls, these outcasts from civilization, who had not much to live for beyond their religion. A statue of Christ looked down on a house desecrated, while all around were moss-grown ruins inhabited by birds and rabbits. Beyond the twitter of a bird the whole place was as silent as the grave.
Further to the south was the fine old ENGLISH CHURCH with a tablet stating that it was erected in 1841 and that Captain Robert Wolfe was Commandant of the Island. Surplices were still hanging in the vestry and several books and diaries were seen, one of which was dated 1869. The fine altar cross, pictures, hanging lamps, fine carpets and many other valuable items were still there. What would become of the many fine teak chairs and pews which were made from the wreckage which was washed up from the mail steamer TANTALLON CASTLE that became a total loss on the North-West corner of the Island?
In the ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH were statues, pictures, lamps, brass candlesticks and brass vessels. The walls would not crumble, as they were stoutly built from slate quarried on the island.
The well-paved streets of the village were beginning to be overgrown with grass and weeds, and it was impossible to go hundred yards in any direction without putting up one or more rabbits. They were in excellent condition from the wealth of vegetation. In the dry months they fed upon the lower branches of trees. The light-keepers could not grow vegetables, as the rabbits destroyed everything. The dozens of houses that lined well laid-out streets were silent and empty. Weeds had grown up and choked gardens. Some windows were barricaded with iron gates, and doors creaked on rusted hinges as the wind whirled through verandas and round corners. Glass windows were broken.
The CLUB, once the pride of the island, was stripped to its bare bones – broken door, wood and rubbish all over the floors. Taking the village as a whole, all the buildings were in much better condition than one would expect.
In August 1933 the population of the island consisted of three Light-keepers and their families who lived in cozy and healthy quarters below the LIGHTHOUSE. They had to attend to and clean the light and its mechanism and had to be wireless experts with a working knowledge of machinery. The Lighthouse Engineer had to take care of the surprising amount of machinery housed in the Fog Signal Station on the west side of the island.
Three machines, each weighing over four and a half tons, about a dozen large air-tanks standing some 12 feet high, and also pipes and other gadgets had to be kept in order and cleaned regularly. The TWO HORNS – which had the appearance of ventilators – projecting through the roof were each half a ton in weight. One mouth faced north-west and the other south-west, so that the volume of sound could be directed into the fog area. Among the jagged rocks in the vicinity were the remains of vessels that have either been cast on shore or have been wrecked.
Few SEABIRDS were seen. Along the six miles of road close to the water’s edge no more than 50 GULLS and DUIKERS were counted. PENGUINS were scarce probably because small fish were no longer close to Table Bay. Land bird were plentiful in many parts of the island.
The whole island was clothed in greenery and at the extreme southern end were acres of arum lilies – a happy playground for the rabbit population.
During the summer time the island was as dry as a bone, as there was a thin layer of soil on a bed of limestone which absorbed all water. Fruit trees did not grow well, as they withered and died as soon as their root got down to the rock.
WHAT COULD BE DONE WITH THE ISLAND? The main problem was that transport to the mainland was a costly matter. For that reason the Government took away its officials and placed the lepers in bigger quarters upcountry. If a private concern or individual was to run it as a large CHICKEN FARM it should prove profitable, for a large number of chickens could find food through many months of the year. Retired men might live there in comfort with perhaps a monthly visit to town, but as a market garden the place would be hopeless. It certainly seems a great pity that the dozens of stores and splendidly built dwelling-houses could not be utilized for some purpose, for hundreds of thousands of pounds must have been spent on it since its occupation.
I wonder what happened to the pews, chairs, sacred pictures, carpets, brass vessels, memorial brasses and marble tablets, and if the diaries and other books found a place in a record office on the mainland.

You are welcome to read more about the History of Robben Island on

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