The Robben Island Lighthouse

While Green Point was the first lighthouse to operate on Cape Town shore's, it wasn't the first navigational aid. That honour goes to a hilltop at the highest point of Robben Island.

The island was first discovered in 1575 by Portuguese explorers as a natural floating paradise of wild birds, seals and penguins, 9km north of Cape Town.

This luscious island was later claimed by Jan van Riebeeck (the Dutch founder of South Africa) who named the sanctuary Robben Island after the Dutch word for seals 'robben', as inspired by the resident seal population.

As seafaring pioneers, explorers, discoverers, traders and dreamers sailed 'off the ends of the earth' they cornered South Africa's coastline, sometimes too closely.

The first Dutch administrator at the Cape, Jan van Riebeeck (1652 until 1662), set up the first navigation aid to seafarers at the top of the then Vuurberg, translated as Fire Hill, the highest elevation on Robben Island.

It is now known as Minto’s Hill, after a former surgeon-superintendent on Robben Island, Dr James Minto.

Huge bonfires were lit on Fire Hill at night to warn passing ships of the rocks that surround the island.

The first penal compound was established by Jan Van Riebeeck a year later on the island with water locked land allowing for tight security.

In keeping with the tradition of establishing firsts, Robben Island also became the site of the first South African Leper Colony serving as yet another good reason that the primitive 'lighthouse' kept sailors at sea.

The lighthouse was built in 1864 by Joseph Flack and is the only South African lighthouse to utilise a flashing light instead of a revolving light.

It shines for a duration of 5 seconds every seven seconds with a light source brightness of 46000 Candela and flashes white light away from Table Bay. The light is visible for 24 nautical miles.

The lighthouse itself was erected in 1865 and stands 18 metres tall on the hill. It was converted to electricity in 1938.


History continued to anchor itself at the site of this flaming flare through the erection of military bunkers and canons constructed by the British during World War II. The canons, only completed post war have never been fired.

The island location of this lighthouse was once also the penitentiary base of former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, whose light too continues to burn.

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