ROBBEN ISLAND

Childhood Memories - A Personal Reflection

by Michael Klerck

 

 

 

 

 

Four hundred and sixty seven years after Bartholomeu Dias sailed into Table Bay and set eyes on Robben Island in 1488, I 'set foot', in the arms of my mother, little knowing that I would spend the most impressionable years of my childhood there.

One of Dias's captains, Jao del Infante, in Dias's second ship, landed there sometime after him "to molest the seals and penguins." It seems that ever since then the island has, in some way, been molested. Van Riebeeck and his successor saw the potential of the island as a prison. The name "Robben" is derived from the Dutch for seals - robbe.

Today there are many more seals on Seal Island in False Bay, where the world witnessed the first breaching by a Great White shark, and which remains the only place on Earth where Great Whites do this (we think). See bottom of the article for link.

The British kept prisoners on Robben Island and in 1845 Lord Charles Somerset had lepers moved to the island where they were to "live and die unwanted on an island of terror".

Many ex-inmates of the prison, including President Mandela, see the island as a special place. So do I, but then from a slightly different perspective. The first four years of my life were filled with happy memories of "the island" as my home. Far from being just a prison, it was first an army and then a naval base where my parents met and were married in 1953.

While various nations of the world spoilt and abused it, there is no doubt that nature intended it to be special. My father, a naval officer at the time, with the sanction of Doctor Hey, Director of Nature Conservation, turned an area into a nature reserve. A 'Noah's Ark' berthed in the harbour sometime in 1959. They stocked the island with tortoise, duck, geese, buck (which included Springbok, Eland, Steenbok, Bontebok and Fallow Deer), ostrich and a few wildebeest which did not last long.   All except the fallow deer are indigenous to the Cape.  Many animals are still there including three species of tortoise - the most recently discovered in 1998 - two Parrot Beaked specimens that have remained undetected until now.

The Leopard or Mountain tortoises might have suspected the past terror; perhaps they had no intention of being a part of a future infamy, but they often attempted the swim back to the mainland (they are the only species that can swim). Boats would lift them out of the sea in Table Bay and return them to us. None of the original 12 shipped over remain and in 1995, 4 more were introduced - they seem to have more easily accepted their home as they are still residents. One resident brought across a large Leopard tortoise discovered in a friend's garden in Newlands, Cape Town. He lived in our garden and grew big enough to climb over the wall and roam the island much like the sheep in Van Riebeeck's time. As children we were able to ride his great frame comfortably, as did some grown men. The buck and ostriches seemed equally happy and the ducks and Egyptian Geese were assigned a home in the old quarry, which had, some three hundred years before, supplied the dressed stone for the foundations of the Castle; at the time of my residence it bristled with fish.

Regrettably, recent reports in Cape Town newspapers show that a lack of upkeep and the proliferation of rabbits on the island has led to the total devastation of the wildlife; there remains today almost none of the animals my father brought over all those years ago; the rabbits themselves have laid the island waste, stripping it of almost all ground vegetation. It looks almost like a desert. A reporter from the broadcasting corporation told me recently that they found the carcass of the last bontebok.

Not all animals were wild.  Za-Za was a deaf Dalmatian - she joined my mother on the Island some years before I was born and was able to live without the fear of traffic.  My mother only had to stomp on the wooden floors of our house to summon her. 

Amazingly, I was reminded of her the other day when I walked into Cafe Verdi, a pub in Wynberg, and saw a young man with a Dalmatian pub at his feet.  I was telling my friend, next to me, the story of Za-Za - the young man overheard me and said he had read about her in the SA Navy archives, bought his pup and named her after the original. An astounding co-incidence!

See Video footage of the island, circa 1958 ...

The dog I remember so well was my spaniel Lindy - soft and gentle enough to put up with my favourite pastime of sticking my fingers in her ears and sitting on her when she carried pups, and faithful enough to sleep under my pram and growl at anyone who came near.  The island, as you can imagine, was her paradise - rabbits or wild hares and birds to chase but never catch.

One animal which was an integral part of my happy childhood, was a buck called Bambi (what else?). She came across on the 'Ark', alone and frightened. Her parents had been destroyed in a typical Cape fire. My mother assigned her to the empty chicken-hok at the bottom of the garden and she spent some time with us before being introduced into the 'wild'. I fed her three times a day from my redundant bottles and the special childhood memory of her sucking my finger at the end of each meal lives with me. I can still almost feel her diminutive tail flicking through the air with uncontrollable excitement at the sight of me. Or was it the bottle?

All the inhabitants on Robben island knew each other well. There was no crime, and nothing can take the place of growing up in a completely safe environment. I call it an island mentality - the feeling of being part of a special community ran through to everyone. My grandfather, then a retired Colonel and near the end of his life, had a frightening experience while pushing me in a pushcart far from our home. He fell badly and could not get up. I lay on my side, still strapped to my seat and, while he struggled to rise, my only attempt at showing sympathy was a bout of uncontrollable laughter. Luckily for both of us a member of the now disbanded Cape Corps drove past in a troop carrier, helped both the old man and myself up, and returned us to our home. I was recorded as being indignant at his ending what I considered a unique adventure.

My mother's penchant for organising took expression in a massive carols by candlelight with a nativity tableau in which nearly all the inhabitants of Robben Island took part. The naval tiffies constructed large wings for the Archangel which consisted of real feathers, and the halo surrounding her tall frame was embedded with lights which she controlled by means of a switch. The stable and manger were constructed by volunteer sailors, carpenters and artificers. The floodlighting was provided by my father and the head of the PWD (public works department) who both battled against a raging Southeaster. I, at the age of four, was the stable boy. The feeling of apprehension and excitement as I walked into the floodlit stadium, leading Mary's donkey, is still with me. The choir was given additional volume and depth with the naturally harmonizing voices of the black and coloured inhabitants. Few, if any, inhabitants were in the stands - just about everyone was in the tableau itself - but we did get eager support from friends and family who came over especially for the event.

The sound of Silent Night still today evokes the memory of the small children of the island walking up, hesitantly, to peer at the babe in the manger and deposit their gifts which were later dispatched to an orphanage in Cape Town.

Some inhabitants, including a few high-school pupils made the trip to the mainland each weekday on one of the two ferries - the Issie (named after Mrs. Smuts) and the Wolraad Woltemade. I sometimes made the journey sans mother but with my Nanny to meet my grandmother under the old station clock at the Cape Town station. Today we smile knowingly at Capetonians reveling in the Waterfront. The ferries berthed at the Victoria Wharf and the harbour cafe was a familiar stop back then.

Nothing can match a stormy sea (see picture) on a Sunday afternoon and the prospect of returning to our haven after a weekend in the wild city. There were the sailing trips on Caprice and other yachts; catching crayfish from small dinghies, and the night-time fishing expeditions by torch.

    

Capetonians are famous for the appreciation of their heritage and the Navy, famous for its hospitality, decided on an open day. Navy and civilian inhabitants braced themselves for the influx of a one or two hundred people. I can remember a great throng of many hundreds and the ferries and their exhausted crews were busy well into the night returning them to the mainland. A weary island population spent most of the latter part of the day in search of wayward Capetonians who had wandered all over, some thinking a night on the island preferable to returning to town.

I was familiar with the mechanics of the lighthouse - a special privilege for a young child, but just another part of life on the island. Mornings meant gathering in the library where my mother become, magically, a teacher and read to a class of pre-school children. There was a large swimming pool at the Mess. Knowing my love affair with water today, it is strange to vividly remember how frightened I was of it. My mother could no longer take my whimpering one day and hurled me in the deep end (I did have arm bands) - she then couldn't get me out.

My Nanny and I walked each day, right across Robben Island. Long, safe walks of discovery. The bird life was and must still be magnificent, and the view of Table Mountain cannot be matched even from the palatial homes of Plattekloof, one of the posh northern suburbs today. The island farm was a favourite and a visit to the milking sheds was not complete without a search for the resident mole snake who was assigned a 'bunk' in the rafters in return for a diminished rat population. I cannot remember whether, like Able Seaman Just Nuisance, it was assigned any rank though. Near the farm were the remains of a beautiful private garden tended by the Matron of the leper hospital and which had flourished in spite of the fire which had destroyed that part of the island when the lepers were removed. The rambling roses and variety of shrubs seemed to grow in colourful support of the courage displayed by all the people incarcerated over so many years. It was a place many visited with quiet reverence, and still do today.

Nanny, being a Xhosa, struck up a friendship with the non-political prisoners who, surprisingly enough, walked the island with relative 'freedom' in small work parties. Long conversations and much laughter resulted from these encounters, especially on the edge of the quarry itself; we would visit there daily. By this time I could speak elementary Xhosa and the hardened prisoners were, to me, simply friendly men with whom I chatted on most days.  What of Nanny and I? - I suppose we were a woman and a child, full of chatter and mirth, and a sad reminder of home.

Nanny is gone. Many of the prisoners are now well-known, immaculately dressed men, imprisoned in our television sets and who speak of the island with ambivalent reverence. In Ciskei there were always two claims to fame for political leaders: imprisonment on Robben Island and also by one of Ciskei's regimes. My own personal claim to fame, and a wonderful dinner startler is that I was born on Robben island. The fact that I moved there when I was a few months old and was, in fact, born in the Gardens Cape Town, has never perturbed me. My mother, however, often reminds me of my indiscretion. I put it down to poetic license; I'll not change my CV for anything! She, in fact, like others, served in the Army there in 1942 and then again in 1946. She met my father there while visiting friends and they were married on the island in the Anglican church (pictured here) in 1952.

author on steps of home with faithful Spaniel, LindyThere can be no doubt that ex-inhabitants and visitors must wish for some safe sanctuary in the future. No development besides a careful reconstruction of the architecture and natural beauty can give any justice to it's rich history and the many conflicting memories. The recent decision to turn it into a tourist attraction under the umbrella of the Department of Arts and Culture is, perhaps, the best choice (see article below that shows this is no longer the case). There cannot be any doubt, either, that those friendly prisoners would have liked to have experienced the island as I did. Far from being just a "dumping ground for (offenders)", as one editorial in a Cape Town newspaper portrayed it recently, Robben Island has played host to a great deal of 'normality' and even celebration.

Perhaps then, it is fitting to relate one last memory. One day a work-detail of prisoners arrived at our front door. I clung to my mother's side while the spokesman for the group handed over a gift roughly wrapped in brown paper. They had heard from Nanny that Bambi had been released - I had lost a friend and they wanted to show some solidarity. They had carved, lovingly, and probably with very primitive tools, the gift of a wooden spoon.

The spoon took pride of place in the kitchen and always reminded me that along with the memory of a very special place, there are always memories of special people on Robben Island itself.


[All quotes and historical info. other than personal recollection taken from Robben Island by Simon De Villiers, Struik, 1971.]

See Video footage of the island, circa 1958 ...

More pictures of the Island, nearly one hundred years ago: The Robben Island Staff photograph; the Leper Staff; cricket, Dr Budd, the Superintendent...Go Here. 

Wartime pics from my mother's album, and some unknown photographs from other collections, here...


 

I really enjoy getting feedback. I have had wonderful emails from kids and adults all over the world. Even touching stories of others who grew up there, before or after my time...please don't hesitate to contact me - I shall include your email on my Memories Page. Thank you for sharing this with me.

mklerck@gmail.com

 


Please also visit:

 Battle For Robben Island - now finally won, we hope:

My letter to the press that, together with sharp reporting from Freek Robinson and his television episode on Fokus, managed to highlight Robben Island's plight and, we think, eventually depose the corrupt officials. Today RIM is working hard to restore its image and make RI worthy of its World Heritage status.


Memories, Letter & Emails...

Links and letters from people all over the world. Many photos as well - it's worth a visit.

Other photographs sent to me, or discovered in old albums...


Gun Restoration

The Department of Public Works, together with MLB Architects have done a wonderful job in restoring the only semi-operational 9.2 inch gun in the world. This page is well worth a visit if you are in any way militarily minded.


Walvis Bay 6-inch Battery: 1962

See slides of the construction of two guns on the coast outside Walvis Bay; a response to the Rooi Gevaar and Russian fishing trawlers who were apparently spying on us: see pictures of one of them ...


 

Pages relating the personal history of others:

 

Christo Theart

Christo has a similar experience to mine, and although we met only later in life, we share the same fondness for Robben Island, and a desire to see it fully restored; read his story here ...

 

John Hennessey on the Budd family ...

Dr Herbert Budd, Lisle his wife and Billy their son live on Robben Island in the 1920's. Read their story and see some stunning shots of life on the island nearly one hundred years ago ...

See John's own family tree here ...

You can also read about his visit to the Eastern Cape in South Africa to view Dr Budd's grave.       

 

 


IF AT SOME POINT YOU LIVED ON THE ISLAND, PLEASE VISIT THE MEMORIES PAGE AND ENTER A SEARCH FOR A NAME, YOURS OR ANOTHER, AND READ THE LETTERS PEOPLE HAVE SENT ME, MANY ARE LOOKING FOR FAMILY AND FRIENDS, AND IT IS POSSIBLE YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO HELP...

 

My faithful dog, Lindy and Barbara, my mother in our garden, 1958.

 

 

 

 

Valuable water for the  new animals on Robben Island.

I remember my father taking me to inspect this special place he had set aside for the animals - water was scarce on the island, and every drop was precious...


 

My parents, Barbara Ueckermann & Peter Klerck met on Robben Island just after the war for the first time, and then married there in 1952...

 

In loving memory of Barbara Ueckermann, Klerck, Olivier who passed away at age 89, June 2013. Thank you for all the precious memories and special moments that all started here on the Island...


 

Leper's Garden - circa 1946 while my mother was stationed on Robben Island. It is all but descimated now.

Rescued from a fire - Bambi's descendents now run quite free ...I suppose there was a time when animals walked across, but for a long period animals such as this were not common on Robben Island.

Bambi. This 55 year old slide was difficult to adapt, save and enhance - but here she is.  My father rescued her when her parents died in a Cape fire; part of my daily chore was to feed her with milk from my old bottles. She used to suck my finger so powerfully, I would have to call my mother to come rescue me!

Her descendents have roamed the island freely until the recent devastation of the vegetation due to bad management and a proliferation of rabbits; now all animals save the fallow dear are dead. Ironic that indigenous animals have not survived, while those from Europe have.

 

The Anglican Church on the island, where my parents married

The Anglican church in the main street  - built from local stone taken from one of the quarries on the island in 1841.  Top picture taken in my time; bottom, circa 1946 from my mother's album.

My parents married here in 1952. The church has recently been restored, and is the only privately owned building on the entire island, with all other buildings belonging to the state. I took my mother in her eighties on a tour, sadly we had to dislodge ourselves from the bus and insist that we be allowed into the church for one last visit - for some reason the RIM does not allow people to walk around the island - not even the little main street - bizarre, as one would imagine they have nothing to hide.

 

 


Package Tours of Robben Island here.

 


Restoration Of 9.2 inch Gun...

 

Finally ... the restoration is complete. My mother "manned" this gun during the war [WW2], waiting for German submarines that never arrived. Her position was way down in the plotting room under ground.

   We took her up to her old battery in Simon's Town just the other day; and at 84 she was still able to walk around them, saddened, no doubt, by their state of disrepair.

 Congratulations to the Robben Island Museum and MLB Architects for a stunning job. See a few more pictures: Go Here.

 


ISLAND AT WAR

 - a new publication -

Books may be ordered from the Naval Heritage Trust: P O Box 521, Simon’s Town, 7995. Orders can also be made by email either to R Adm Chris Bennett SAN (Rtd.) at wiggyben@gmail.com or to Lt Cdr Leon Steyn at leonsteyn70@gmaill.com

 

 

 

Check out some GREAT links: places to stay, things to do in Cape Town on the right:

  

Click for Robben Island, South Africa Forecast

 

 

 

 

 

Please Visit...

    


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Package Tours of

Robben Island here.

 

or

 

Book directly with

Robben Island Museum here.

 

Visitng Cape Town? Get up close and personal

with Up Close Tours...

 

My favourite city - said to be one, amongst five, of the most beautiful in the world - Cape Town.

Rhino Africa Safaris - see Cape Town and its wonders here and be sure to Bucketlist this as a destination - you will not regret it!

 

Südafrikas historische Insel vor Kapstadt - die jetzt zum wichtigsten Museum des Landes im 21.Jahrhundert wird.

 

If you want to go on safari, here is a site giving details about  most SA Game Reserves.

If you want the only MALARIA FREE game reserves in Africa, click on the link.

See video clips of Great Whites breaching in False Bay !

Good site for B & B establishments.

 

 


I support the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund.  Please  make a contribution, no matter how small. Thank you.

 

 



 

 

 

 

  www.MichaelKlerck.com

You can buy one of three books I have written...

The Key To Tantalis - a fantasy-adventure for graders,

What The Orchid Says - an esoteric view of the world; not for the faint-hearted. Prepare to be surprised...

Where The Light Is - an adult literary novel (my first) about a middle aged man grappling with his mortality. It is set in Cape Town and Jace, the main character, recalls his incarceration in boarding school in the sixties. He enters therapy in order to deal with these issues, and emotions long since buried in the distant memories of fighting in the Border war in Southern Africa find their way to the surface. In having to deal with his mother’s relocation into frail care he recalls his incarceration in boarding school – his memories of both happy and brutal times in the sixties are movingly portrayed throughout the book.

Where The Light Is is a compelling read – the journey of a man looking for meaning amongst his own personal anger and memories; this, along with his need for intimacy, seldom seen from a man’s point of view, is beautifully portrayed in this novel that will make you cry, and laugh out loud.


 

 

 

 

 

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