Recovering Voices From the Distant Past

What I Really Wish . . . . Is That
I Can Have My Freedom

Voices From Robben Island, South Africa


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Recovering Voices From
the Distant Past

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Conference on Robben Island

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Books Written by People Who
Have Had Leprosy

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Nicholas Van Schalkwyk was a farm laborer, the father of two, who was admitted to Robben Island on December 4, 1895 at the age of 57. He would live, separated from his family for 23 years, until he was 80 years old, at which time it was decided that he was no longer “a threat to society” and was discharged in 1918.
(Western Cape Provincial Archives)
“What I really wish to ask the Government is that I can have my freedom. 

“I do not wish to complain of anything else but the loss of my freedom . . .”

-- Frans Jacobs, who was sent to Robben Island on December 10, 1886 at the age of 35. *

Cemetery where persons with leprosy were buried on Robben Island. Individuals with leprosy were sent to Robben Island from 1845-1931. Photos by Anwei S. Law

In 1853, testimony by individuals with leprosy before a Commission appointed to inquire into conditions on Robben Island stated:

“Great irregularities went on in this establishment at a former period; the surgeon could  punish whom he liked, and nobody to oppose him.  He even went so far as to strike a patient with a stick, -- an act at once unjust.  He is now reformed a little, after causing a great many disturbances on the establishment.  He cannot speak the Dutch language, and, therefore, all he speaks to any one that cannot understand English has to be interpreted.    He, nevertheless, does not forget to threaten us with, ‘I will stop your tobacco.’
“Our friends and relations dread crossing the sea.  A few may venture across, and run the risk of being detained by contrary winds.  It is sad, indeed, when the thoughts of friends and of our present situation will force upon us.  We have nothing to divert us here.  We cannot complain of what is allowed us from a benevolent Government.  We cannot sufficiently thank the Government for providing for such unfortunate beings as we are; but, at the same time, we beseech Government to remove us from this place, where we are compelled to remain against our will; and may God grant our prayer.”**

In 1907, J. A. Botha wrote to the Government on behalf of himself and
Mrs. J. Richter:

“I feel compelled to write to you again, and to ask you to make my position to the Government clear.  I shall be glad if you will read the 13th chapter of Leviticus, and you will see that I am not what God’s Law describes.  I have been sick for seven years, and have used all sorts of medicines, such as chaulmoogra pills, which I have used for a year at the rate of 24 a day, and Chaulmoogra Oil, for six months three spoonsful a day, without any effect.  I am 61 years and still strong . . . . We do not mean that we are not sick, but only wish to be segregated at home under the regulations.  Our people are willing to keep us at their own cost, and as the regulations for home segregation are for sick people, we trust to receive a favourable answer . . .”***

Esther Johns, #528 on the Robben Island Leprosy Register, was 24 when she was admitted to Robben Island on May 2, 1906.  She was a Roman Catholic who had worked as a general servant.  Despite the fact that men and women were separated on Robben Island, Esther gave birth to a child, who survived only a short time.
(Western Cape Provincial Archives)  
* Statement made by Frans Jacobs on November 14, 1892. Western Cape Provincial Archives. [Information on Frans Jacobs and other individuals important to Robben Island's history was made available to the Oral History Project by Dr. Harriet Deacon who has done extensive research on Robben Island's history, and by Richard Whiteing and the Robben Island Working Archives.]

** Cape of Good Hope Report from the Select Committee of the House of Assembly upon and documents connected with the Robben Island Establishment Sept. 1854, printed 1855. Western Cape Provincial Archives

*** J.A. Botha to the Colonial Secretary, 1 April 1907. Robben Island Papers, Western Cape Provincial Archives