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Man's inhumanity to Man

The old Breakwater Gaol was a prominent feature on Cape Town’s shoreline long before Robben Island achieved worldwide renown as a prison. There were in fact two Breakwater Gaols: the first was built in 1859 when construction of the breakwater for Victoria & Alfred Basins – Cape Town’s first docks – commenced.

Just below the Gaol, a quarry was excavated for its hard rock. (Today, the Two Oceans Aquarium and the One&Only Hotel stand on the edge of the flooded quarry.) The rock was trundled up the hill in rail wagons – by manpower – and then down, through a tunnel alongside Dock House, to the breakwater.

The breakwater was built by convict labour and having convicts “on-site” offered many advantages. Although the old Roeland Street prison had just been completed, it was partially mothballed because of the need for manpower at the new docks.

Many of these convicts were guilty of no more than having jumped ship at the Cape. They had been press-ganged into maritime service at Portsmouth and found life at sea too much for them. And jumping ship was an offence punishable by hard labour.

To break the spirit of prisoners on arrival at the gaol, or as punishment for difficult inmates, warders used a treadmill – a giant version of the toy that pet hamsters play on. The version built in 1890 for inmates is no toy.

Prisoners had to keep a steady pace and if they slowed down, the rotating planks could lacerate or even smash their shins. A man could spend a day from 9.00am to 5.00pm climbing these endless steps with only five minutes rest every half hour.

The treadmill still exists today tucked in a corner at the end of the row of isolation cells at UCT’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) which was developed from the second prison built on the site in 1902. The name of the nearby restaurant at the GSB is, appropriately, The Treadmill.

The two old death cells still remain at the one end of the isolation cells. (Gallows Hill, today the location of Cape Town's Traffic Department, is just across the quarry/New Basin on the edge of the CBD.)

The wall of the original prison also remains and graffiti carved into the hard rock by inmates in 1900 shows images of President Paul Kruger and Cecil John Rhodes, celebrate the fall of Mafeking in 1902, and other events of the time.

After a work strike in 1885, when the black and white convicts held meetings in the yard together, prison authorities decided that the interracial contact caused the trouble and necessitated separate prisons for blacks and whites.

The “Industrial Breakwater Prison” (the existing four-turret building converted by the GSB) was built to house white male convicts. In 1905 most of the black convicts in the "Old Prison" were transferred and the remaining few hired out to the Harbour Board at 6d per day to work in the docks.