It was first inhabited thousands of years ago when the channel dividing it from the mainland was not under water. Since the end of the 17th century, Robben Island has been used to isolate certain people, mainly as a prison, and among its first permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, not only in South Africa, but also from Indonesia. From 1836 to 1931 the island was used as a leper colony, and in the 20th century it became famous as a prison for political prisoners. Notable amongst these were Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Robert Sobukwe.
Today the island is a popular tourist destination and has been declared a World Heritage Site.