Slaves between a rock and hard place

In a quiet moment, away from the clicking cameras of the tourists and the chatter of school groups at the southwestern tip of Robben Island, where waves crash on to the rocks and the wind sweeps over the rugged shore, it’s not hard to imagine the despair of slaves who once laboured here.

They were called Eva van Madagascar, Catharina van Palicatte in India and Maria van Bengale, although most names have not been recorded. The three women were among the first slaves shipped to the island in 1657, far away from their countries of birth and forced to work on six square kilometres of harsh and inhospitable land.

The island’s notorious history of human suffering is well documented.
And now visitors can also learn about the slaves, who were banished or incarcerated by the Dutch and later by the British well before the political and ordinary prisoners, lepers and the mentally ill began their time on the island.

A new exhibition, A Struggle for Freedom: Our African Heritage, commemorates the slave prisoners whose hardships on the island stretched over two centuries—from the days of Eva, Catharina and Maria in the mid-1650s to the mid-1830s.

Their origins are often indicated in the name whereas others were named after the month they arrived or the master they served. The majority of Cape slaves (41 150 in total) came from Africa and Madagascar—initially from Angola and the Guinea coast, later from East and Central Africa (Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Congo). In addition, there were 17 315 slaves from India and 13 545 from the Indonesian islands.

The exhibition features photos of Robben Island and other Unesco World Heritage sites in Africa and Brazil that are historically entwined with slavery. The triangular slave trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas has created striking similarities across the continents. For instance, the colourful architecture of the Brazilian city Salvador de Bahia bears an uncanny resemblance to the Bo Kaap, Cape Town’s Malay quarter.

The exhibition is located at Alpha One, a former officers’ club and a place where prison latrines used to be emptied. Today the building is a tuck shop for visitors. It is functional and clean, only the wall with the exhibit detailing Robben Island’s slave history is suitably drab. The paint is peeling off and the screed has holes.

“It’s the dampness”, says our guide Sedick Levy. “The wall has been screeded many times but it keeps coming loose.” He says the painters are about to fix the wall again but, because it’s a heritage site, only a certain type of screed can be used that is likely to fall victim to the dampness again.

Most of the installations are outside, exposed to the elements. They modestly frame the magnificent photo opportunity that has Table Mountain towering above an ever-changing Atlantic Ocean, with the Mother City an elongated smudge in between.

Inge Herbert, spokesperson for the African World Heritage Fund (AWHF), which is one of the organisers, says the expo’s small scale is intentional. The installations are meant to raise awareness about slavery but not to steal limelight from the essence of Robben Island as a political prison.

The AWHF was founded in 2006 to promote the continent’s world heritage sites. It will replicate the exhibition in Brasilia during the World Heritage Committee session in South America in July.

Herbert says the expo might also come to Museum Africa in Johannesburg. She says: “The Robben Island exhibition is a building block. We can add to it and make it locally relevant to other sites.” They could, for example, exhibit letters from slaves.

At Robben Island, a path leads from the exhibition at Alpha One to the first stone quarry where chained slaves cut rock. Until the 1830s, most of the prisoners were slave resisters. With imprisoned soldiers and sailors, they built the Castle of Good Hope over a period of 13 years, using rock from Robben Island and local quarries.

“Let your mind wander across the centuries to people captured to become slaves, now doubly punished as prison labourers,” says an information plate and urges visitors not to pick up stones: “Tread lightly. This is almost sacred ground.”

The slaves are long gone, but some former political prisoners have returned to the island as tour guides. Sedick Levy, imprisoned in the early 1960s, was forced to excavate stones with his bare hands until they were raw with blisters.

He says it still hurts to be on the island. “I get so emotional; incidents flash back before my eyes. It never gets easier to talk about it, but the world needs to know what happened on Robben Island.”

That is also why the slave exhibition intends to subdue school kids into silence and tourist groups into putting their cameras down for a brief moment to imagine how Eva van Madagascar, Catharina van Palicatte, Maria van Bengal and other enslaved men and women suffered on this windswept island.

The Robben Island expo will remain in place until the weather destroys it

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