Robben Island, Afrikaans Robbeneiland, island in Table Bay, Western Cape province, South Africa. It is 5 miles (8 km) west of the mainland and 6 miles (10 km) north of Cape Town and has an approximate area of 5 square miles (13 square km). Its name is the Dutch word for “seals,” once plentiful in the surrounding waters. The island was a common stopping point for passing ships in the 16th and early 17th centuries. After early efforts at settlement, it was made a Dutch and then a British penal colony. The island housed a leper colony from 1846 to 1931, and those judged insane were also sent there. A lighthouse was installed in 1864. Fortifications were erected during World War II, and from the mid-1960s to 1991 Robben Island served as South Africa’s maximum-security prison. Most inmates, including Nelson Mandela, were black men incarcerated for political offenses. The last of these prisoners were released in 1991. The island continued to serve as a medium-security prison for criminal offenders until 1996. In 1997 it was turned into a museum and declared a national monument, and in 1999 it received designation as a World Heritage site.
Mandela returned in 1994 after being elected president.