Robben Island is roughly oval in shape, 3.3 kilometers long north-south, and 1.9 kilometers wide and is the site of solo swims and the Cadiz Freedom Swim. It is flat and only a few meters above sea level.
The past President of South Africa and Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela, past South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, and current South African President Jacob Zuma were imprisoned on Robben Island, alongside many other political prisoners.
Since the end of the 17th century, Robben Island has been used for the isolation of mainly political prisoners. The Dutch settlers were the first to use Robben Island as a prison. Its first prisoner was probably Harry die strandloper in the mid-17th century. Amongst its early permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia. After a failed uprising at Grahamstown in 1819, the fifth of the Xhosa Wars, the British colonial government sentenced African leader Makanda Nxele to life imprisonment on the island . He drowned on the shores of Table Bay after escaping the prison.
The island was also used as a leper colony and animal quarantine station. Starting in 1845 lepers from the Hemel-en-Aarde (heaven and earth) leper colony near Caledon were moved to Robben Island when Hemel-en-Aarde was found unsuitable as a leper colony. Initially this was done on a voluntary basis and the lepers were free to leave the island if they so wished. In April 1891 the cornerstones for 11 new buildings to house lepers were laid. After the introduction of the Leprosy Repression Act in May 1892 admission was no longer voluntary and the movement of the lepers was restricted. Prior to 1892 an average of about 25 lepers a year were admitted to Robben Island, but in 1892 that number rose to 338, and in 1893 a further 250 were admitted.