Peter Limb [second from left] with colleagues from Ethiopia, Nigeria and Sweden on Robben Island, December 1995. Behind is the limestone cave where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were forced to work [photo © copyright by Nicole Livar]

[first published: African Studies Association  of Australasia & the Pacific  Review & Newsletter v.20 no.1 June 1998 pp.15-19]


© copyright this version Peter Limb, 2000


There are few comparative histories of Australia and South Africa despite shared experiences including British colonialism and racism. 1   Slender connections between black Africans and Aboriginal Australians are little known. 2 The history of penal stations in the two nations, specifically that of Rottnest Island (Western Australia) and Robben Island (Western Province), suggest interesting comparisons. The visitor* is struck by obvious parallels: Dutch etymology (Robben="seal"; Rottnest="rats' nest"); proximity to a metropolis; sparsely-vegetated landscapes; the presence of military and convict relics and shipwrecks; both were used as quarantine stations and military bases; both are state-owned. There are subtle differences. Rottnest is slightly larger. The quokkas of Rottnest contrast with the ostriches of Robben Island, whose seals now prefer Cape Town harbour. Rottnest had a shorter span (1838-1931) as a prison. There also were profound disparities in the scale of late 19th century Aboriginal resistance to British colonization and late 20th century black resistance to apartheid. Yet the architectural, archival, and archaeological reminders of a black convict past on these islands evoke hauntingly akin images of repression and resistance. In the 19th century both isles held exiled anti-colonial fighters, isolated from their kin, forced to work in quarries under the lash of overseer brutality, yet at times engineering remarkable escapes. Robben Island revisited this politico-penal role with a vengeance in the late 20th century, whilst the path taken by Rottnest became that of a (white) holiday haven.


The concept of the prison isle can be traced to "floating" prison ships moored in the Thames River in the 18th century. Island gaols enable punishment to be combined with exile, and imply a special harshness due to isolation. 3 Robben and Rottnest are "part of an archipelago"4 of penal islands that include Alcatraz and Devil's Island. Australian colonial authorities incarcerated white convicts and black foes alike on islands such as Norfolk and Sarah, notorious as convict hell-holes, Flinders, "a benign concentration camp," Melville (Darwin), Stradbroke, Peel (Queensland), and Cockatoo and Goat (Sydney) Islands. Tasmania itself became a prison island for all blacks in the 1820's.5 The most [in]famous South African penal isle lies just off Cape Town.


Robben Island

Robben Island has had diverse roles: pantry and mailbox for Dutch sailors (1488-1806); military prison of the Dutch (1652-1806) and British (1806-46); hospital for the chronically sick (to 1891), "lunatics" (to 1921), and "lepers" (to 1931); military base (1939-59); maximum security apartheid political prison (1961-91). Many black leaders were held there, including: Autshumato, exiled in 1658; East Indies Muslim leaders; Xhosa Chiefs Makana and Maqoma - the former drowned near Bloubergstrand on the mainland during an escape in 1820, whilst most of his companions were caught and either decapitated or, as in the case of David Stuurman, sentenced to transportation to Sydney.6  ANC and PAC leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were its most recent political prisoners. After 1991 it lingered briefly as a prison before being closed, and then opened to tourism.

Changes in South Africa have stimulated scholarly interest in "The Island." To the many prison memoirs,7 novels and poems,8 and film9 representations of the gaol can now be added more detailed historical works treating its early days, role as a military base, and the nature of prisoner resistance.10 Some recent political histories have accorded it separate sections.11 Bulky prisoner archives range from minutes of how they organized sport or political education to the apple boxes in which they repatriated their meagre belongings.12 Writers have variously interpreted prisoner texts as memoirs depicting tyranny, evidence of resistance discourse, or a search for a new nation. Prisoners transformed the gaol into "a university of struggle."13 Even Australian tabloids have discovered the Island; one hailing it as a "[M]ecca for tourists." More serious attention was given in a recent ABC-Radio special.14

The fate of exiled political prisoners resembled that of ostracized inmates whose medical quarantine was related to segregation. Many "lepers" referred to themselves as prisoners. Leper or racial stereotyping in South Africa and Australia was similar: contracting leprosy was linked to ethnic groups such as "Bushmen" or Chinese.15 In 1995, when Mandela addressed 2,000 ex-prisoners on the Island, he noted how colonialism had banished there many kinds of rebels and outcasts, yet "history has turned all these colonial concepts on their head, and the real proverbial lepers of politics are the very masters who sought to keep the majority slaves."16 Islanders' lives are now being immortalized in an anti-apartheid museum being developed by the Mayibuye Centre. But the Island's brutal past re-emerged recently when ANC parliamentarian Nomboniso Gasa-Suttner was raped there in the course of research into this museum. No one has yet been charged.


Rottnest Island

Rottnest lies 20 km from the coast, with salt lakes and a limestone geology - features similar to Robben. Archaeology confirms prior habitation before separation from the mainland thousands of years ago.17 Known to Nyungar Aborigines as Wadjemup, it gained its colonial name from Dutch explorers who sailed from Cape Town. De Vlaming in 1696 was accompanied by two "blacks...taken with us at the Cape."18 Rottnest also has had diverse roles. It hosted a boy's reformatory from 1878 to 1901. 19  In 1934 the Australian government, influenced by secessionist moves, agreed to install guns which, like those on Robben, were never used. 20  In World War I some 1,100 German, Austrian and Croatian prisoners were interned. Italians were held there in World War II. 21  But it was in its function as a penal island that Rottnest most resembled Robben Island.

An Aboriginal prison was established on Rottnest in 1838, justified by the claim that prisoners could, on the isolated island, be "gradually trained in the habits of civilized life."22 Yet a proposal in 1842 to establish an island school was rejected - unlike Robben Islanders, who earned university degrees, Aborigines were denied education.23 Some inmates were imprisoned for petty crimes such as stealing flour, or fruit from gardens cultivated on their traditional lands.24 Others simply posed a challenge to white hegemony. Eanna and Bokoberry were arrested for "no particular crime," but were seen by "Guardian of the Aborigines" Charles Symmons as "untameable savages." Exile would "teach them outwardly at least, to conform to our social regulations." In 1844 Joseph Frazer, an early Christian convert, was sent to Rottnest for the dubious "crime" of "going walkabout."25

Prisoners' lives were harsh. Re-captured escapees received many lashes and were kept in heavy irons. In 1846 a French priest described blacks of all ages being taken to Rottnest in chains. "These poor unfortunates...are sent there for the least fault...[But] their stay...only serves to brutalize them."26 Anthony Trollope (who also toured South Africa) expressed sympathy for inmates he met in 1872.  27 Overcrowded, poorly-ventilated cells, inadequate food and warmth, and overseer brutality led to a death-rate of 10%. Influenza killed 80 prisoners in 1883. A state commission noted that the superintendent had fed vegetables to horses whilst prisoners suffered nutritional diseases.28 Superintendent Henry Vincent was accused of beating and murdering prisoners but, protected by officials, escaped justice.29 In 1875 the press referred to Rottnest as the "Black Man's Grave." In 1883 inmates were forced to observe the hanging of their comrade Wangabiddie.30

In the 1880-90's resistance grew in the north. Many black fighters were sent to Rottnest on the slightest suspicion: 28 men found in the vicinity of speared cattle near Carnarvon were exiled without fair trial. In the face of criticism of such practices, the Legislative Council conceded that many had been illegally sentenced, but simply passed retrospective legislation validating convictions. Rottnest, argues Green, "became the final answer for holding those too wild and rebellious to submit." It "deteriorated into one of the most heinous prison systems in Australia."31 Toussaint argues that "colonial violence is the strongest recurring theme in the history of Aboriginal-European relations in Western Australia."32 Some settlers felt that white survival required such harshness, a notion also common in South Africa. Following the 1841 shooting of six Aborigines in retaliation for the death of a settler, the press stated that, whilst the deceased were not guilty, their killing was "at least excusable....if we intend to remain in this country at all."33 Colonists tended to whitewash Rottnest brutality. The Committee of Correspondence in 1841 praised the prison. Superintendent W. H. Timperley's son claimed that prisoners, who survived on a meagre diet of tea, bread and soup, "grew sleek and contented." Alexander Forrest in 1895 claimed the prisoners were "pampered."34 Rottnest ceased being a separate prison in 1903 but continued to receive black prisoners as an annex of Fremantle Prison until 1931. Colonial mentalité also continued. A 1935 state commission found Aborigines "perfectly comfortable in their chains."35 Yet it was blacks that built Rottnest. They grew wheat and fodder, cut wood, tended stock, and constructed houses, a lighthouse, and roads. Like Robben Island prisoners, who mined limestone and slate, they used picks to extract stone, salt, and lime shell. They also engineered nine amazing escapes between 1838 and 1916. In 1848 eight men tunnelled under the prison and fled by boat. In 1849 many prisoners, their anguish exacerbated by their incarceration within sight of the camp-fires of their kin, escaped to join an important Aboriginal ceremony on the mainland.36

Rottnest continues to be a symbol for indigenous peoples. Controversy has erupted over the discovery of skeletons in tourist "tentland." Recent films 37 have depicted the brutal treatment of the estimated 3,000 black prisoners, of whom between 280 to 500 died, and lie in unmarked, disrespected graves.38 Rottnest's history has not been extensively treated in Australian literature. But Aboriginal poet Graeme Dixon evokes the insensitivity of tourists on "Holocaust Island" who are oblivious of "skeletons in their cupboards/of deeds most foul and vile."39 Sally Morgan's vivid painting Rottnest depicts holiday-makers frolicking on top of the graves. Efforts to sacralize the site have been rebuffed by successive state governments which have been accused by a local historian of inaction in "publicizing and popularizing" the island's Aboriginal history, despite abundant extant archives. However, a recent landmark collective biography of the prisoners has rescued their lives from anonymity, and prompted claims by the author that attempts to convert their former cells to tourist accommodation could be compared to turning Auschwitz into holiday cottages.40 Whilst no museum or book will ever totally capture the voices of inmates,41 it has even been suggested that computer technology could let black voices be heard in the re-telling of Rottnest's history.42



Today the islands' roles are converging. Eucalyptus and tourists are seen on both. Ironically, these countries' recent divergent paths makes it likely that today most South Africans would view Robben Island as a grim reminder of a detestable past, whilst most Australians are content to enjoy Rottnest as a tourist escape, either blissfully ignorant or - in keeping with John Howard's assault on "black armband history" - deliberately neglectful of its horrendous penal history. But the enduring legacy of the islands will be as symbols of the inhumanity of colonial racism, and of resistance to it.

Reid Library and History Dept., University of Western Australia, May 1998



* The author toured Robben Island in 1995 with the assistance of the Mayibuye Centre.

1 D. Denoon, Settler Capitalism (Clarendon, 1983); K. Darian-Smith, L. Gunner, S. Nuttall (eds.) Text, Theory, Space: Land, Literature and History in South Africa and Australia (London: Routledge, 1996).

2 Aboriginal trackers were sent to Bloemfontein in the Boer War. D. Huggonson, "The Black Trackers of Bloemfontein" Land Rights News Feb. 1990 notes that, ironically, trackers were used against Queensland blacks who subsequently were herded into reserves not dissimilar to Boer War concentration camps.

3 J. Pearn, "Introduction" in Pearn and P. Carter (eds.) Islands of Incarceration (Univ. Qld, 1995) p.xiii.

4 J. Jacobs, "Narrating the Island: Robben Island in South African Literature" Current Writing v.4 1992 pp.73-84, p.75.

5 Pearn, Islands of Incarceration; R. Hughes, The Fatal Shore (London: Pan, 1987) pp.537, 511, 419-23.

6 H. Deacon, "The British Prison on Robben Island 1800-96" in H. Deacon (ed.) The Island: a History of Robben Island 1488-1990 (Bellville: Mayibuye Books, 1996) pp.33-56, p.42.

7 Cf. N. Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (New York: Little, 1994); I. Naidoo, Island in Chains (Penguin, 1982); M. Dlamini, Hell-hole Robben Island (Trenton: Africa World, 1984); N. Alexander, Robben Island Dossier, 1964-74 (UCT, 1994); N. Babenia, Memoirs of a Saboteur (Mayibuye, 1995).

8 D. Zwelonke, Robben Island (London: Heinemann, 1973); D. Brutus, A Simple Lust (Heinemann, 1979); A. James, Ferry to Robben Island (Durban North: Eyeball Press, 1996).

9 Voices from Robben Island (1994); Robben Island: Our University (1988); "Robben Island: Our University" in T. Lodge, All Here and Now (London: Hurst,1992) pp.294-311; K. Tomaselli, M. Eke, P. Davison, "Transcending Prison as a Metaphor of Apartheid" Visual Anthropology v.9 1997 pp.285-300.

10 Deacon, "The Medical Institutions on Robben Island 1846-1931"; N. Penn, "Robben Island 1488-1805"; A. Davey, "Robben Island & the Military 1931-60"; F. Buntman, "Resistance on Robben Island 1963-76" all in Deacon, The Island.

11 T. Karis and G. Gerhart, From Protest to Challenge v.5 (Pretoria: Unisa, 1997) v.5; Lodge, All Here and Now.

12 Robben Island Archives 1966-91 (Bellville, Mayibuye Centre); G. Mbeki, Learning from Robben Island (London: Currey 1991).

13 J.U. Jacobs, "The Discourses of Detention" Current Writing 3 1991 pp.193-9; Deacon, "Introduction" The Island pp.1-5; Jacobs, "Narrating the Island" pp.73-84; Tomaselli, "Transcending Prison" pp.285-300.

14 Sunday Times (Perth) 15 Mar. 1998; "Robben Island: a Sound Journey," 16 Jan. 1998, Radio National (Australia).

15 Deacon, "Leprosy & Racism at Robben Island" Studies in the History of Cape Town 7 1994 p.62. Peel Island housed Aboriginal, Chinese, and white "lepers": see P. Ludlow, "Peel Island" in Pearn, Islands pp.93-109. Bezout Island (1909-12) and a tidal isle near Cossack (W.A.) were also so used : see W.S. Davidson, Havens of Refuge: a History of Leprosy in Western Australia ([Perth] : University of Western Australia Press for the Public Health Department, 1978) pp.6, 17.

16 Robben Island: the Reunion (Bellville: Mayibuye Books, 1996), p.5.

17 N. Green and S. Moon, Far from Home: Aboriginal Prisoners of Rottnest Island 1838-1931 (Nedlands: UWA Press, 1997) p.12; P. Burns, "Rottnest Island" in Pearn, Islands of Incarceration pp.79-92.

18 W. Somerville, Rottnest Island: Its History and Legends (Perth: Rottnest Board, 1948) p.31 citing Extract from the Journals of a Voyage Made to the Unexplored South Land...(Amsterdam, 1701).

19 T. Ross, "The History of Rottnest Island" Graylands College paper, 1965, Battye Library HS/PR/172, p.15.

20 F. Broeze, Island Nation: a History of Australians and the Sea (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998) p.56.

21 Green, Far from Home p.87

22 Western Australia. Act no. 21, 1841: An Act to Constitute the Island of Rottnest a Legal Prison.

23 N. Green, Broken Spears: Aboriginals and Europeans in the Southwest of Australia (Perth: Focus, 1984) p.151.

24 Constable Welch to Colonial Secretary, Perth 27 Aug. 1838, cited in P. Joske, C. Jeffrey and L. Hoffman, Rottnest Island: a Documentary History (Nedlands, W.A.: Centre for Migration and Development Studies, UWA, 1995) p.28.

25 N. Green, "Aborigines and White Settlers in the 19th Century" in C.T. Stannage (ed.) A New History of Western Australia (Nedlands: UWA Press, 1981) pp.72-123 p.92; W. McNair and H. Rumley, Pioneer Aboriginal Mission (Nedlands: UWA Press, 1981) p.101

26 L. Fonteinne to Abbot Gueranger, 13 Jan. 1846 in W. Somerville, "Papers 1900-54" Battye Library, MN1 453A.

27 E.J. Watson, "History of Rottnest" (Perth, 1937), typescript in Battye Library, p.39.

28 Watson, "Rottnest" p.90; Green, Far from Home p.62; W.A. Legislative Council. Votes and Proceedings 1899; N. Green to Subiaco Post 18 Jan. 1998; Thomas, "Crime p.649.

29 W.N. Clark to Aborigines Protection Society Dec. 1842, attached to Lord Stanley to Governor Hutt 26 July 1843, British Parliamentary Papers v.8 Colonies: Australia no. 11; Watson, "Rottnest" p.19.

30 Herald (Perth) 29 May 1875, cited in Joske, Rottnest pp.75-76; Green, Far from Home p.295.

31 Green, "Aborigines and Settlers" pp.103-5 (citing Parliamentary Debates 3 Aug. 1883), pp.92-93.

32 S. Toussaint, "Western Australia" in A. McGrath (ed.) Contested Ground: Australian Aborigines under the British Crown (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1995) pp.240-268, pp.245.

33 The Inquirer (Perth) 10 Mar. 1841.

34 R. Johnston, H.C. Sutherland: an Early Swan River Official (Nedlands: Felix, 1984) p.36; "Notes by L.C. Timperley: Rottnest Island" in Somerville, "Papers"; W.A. Parliamentary Debates 22 Aug. 1895.

35 Moseley Report 1935, in J. Thomas, "Crime and Society" in Stannage, History pp.636-51, p.650.

36 Ross, "Rottnest" p.13; "Timperley" p.7; Joske, Rottnest p.28; Green, Far from Home pp.72-8.

37 In the Name of the Crow (1988); Island of Chains (1991); Wadjemup: Isle of Spirits (1993).

38 P. Dodson, Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: Regional Eeport into Underlying Issues in Western Australia (Canberra: AGPS, 1991) p.18; Green, Far from Home p.83.

39 G. Dixon, "Holocaust Island" in G. Dixon, Holocaust Island (St. Lucia: Univ. Qld. Press, 1990), p.32. Cf. N. Hasluck, "Rottnest Island" in F. Zwicky (ed.) Quarry (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1981).

40 Green, Far from Home pp.82-86; "Rottnest Lodge 'Like Auschwitz,"" Subiaco Post 3 Jan. 1998.

41 "[N]o text, nor any institution...can ever take the place of...the distant murmur that can heard coming from machines, tools, kitchens....[that] grow silent as soon as the museum of writing seizes fragments": De Certeau, La culture au pluriel (1980) cited in B. Rigby, Popular Culture in Modern France (1991) p. 18.

42 Green, Far from Home pp.85-86

Some Links:

Robben Island Homepage

Daily Mail&Guardian: Robben Island's man in the iron mask (Mandela's erstwhile cell on Robben Island ...)

South Africa - Robben Island - Prison

Islands of Infamy -- Robben Island