Tuesday, May 30, 2023 | Dhu al-Qaadah 9, 1444 H
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Jazirat al Maqlab: A forgotten island with an interesting past



The rugged beauty of the Musandam Peninsula, and the surrounding Khors that jut out into the Strait of Hormuz, were shaped thousands of years ago, when they were moulded by massive movements of the earth’s crust. The coastline is peppered with small rugged, deserted coves, and pretty white sandy beaches that gleam against the rocky outcrops; and just an hour away from the shore, in Elphinstone inlet, lies the infamous Telegraph Island.

Bare and barren, the island holds only some crumbling stone bricks that bear witness to an interesting past. In 1863, Lewis Pelly, Political Resident of the British Empire based in Arabia, proposed setting up base for the East India Company at the small fishing village of Khasab with the aim of helping the British Empire expand trade. He also suggested that the tiny island offshore would be an ideal location for the proposed new telegraph route between London and India. His suggestion was taken up and in April 1864, the London Globe carried an article excitedly reporting “the near-completion of the great chain of electric communication between England and India”. There was only one gap to be plugged — along the Gulf — and Jazirat al Maqlab Island, given its strategic location, was selected as the site where the crucial telegraph repeater station would be built.

At a time when mail between London and Bombay took at least a month to arrive, this development was historical. Messages could now be sent between the two cities, located world’s apart, in as little as two hours via submarine telegraph cables — or the “Victorian Internet”, as it has been more recently described. Almost 2,400km of cable was manufactured and laid out, passing through Musandam en route. Telegraphic signals relayed over copper cable inevitably fade with distance, and the function of the station based on Jazirat al Maqlab was to receive and relay, or “repeat”, signals received from either London or Bombay. That is how the island got its now famous moniker — The Telegraph Island.

For the five years following 1864, Jazirat al Maqlab, or “Telegraph Island,” was an active telegraph base, critical to ensuring quick communication between the British Empire and India. This was a critical time for the Empire which was trying to deepen its hold on India and Telegraph Island became the base for ensuring that messages were relayed promptly. However, for the men garrisoned there to keep the vital line of international communication open, life was extraordinarily taxing. The unforgiving heat and barren rocky cliffs soon became an intolerable place, even for India-toughened Europeans.

Isolated for months without end, they had little to do and nowhere to go. On an island just about the size of a small field, completely cut off from civilisation, and nothing but the blue seas to stare into, the soldiers were slowly driven mad. Horrifying stories were passed down through the generations of the monotony that drove men insane. Deaths were frequent and many on the island, though it’s uncertain whether they caused from disease, suicide, or murder drive by lunacy. Reportedly, almost every man stationed at the outpost “around the bend” of the Musandam peninsula completely lost his mind with time.

It wasn’t long before the stories of those who lived on Telegraph Island started becoming part of colourful colonial legend. In fact, the crews sailing eastwards around the tip of the Musandam peninsula coined the expression “going round the bend” to describe their journeys — a phrase which has now become Oman’s lasting contribution to the English vernacular and a fitting tribute to those marooned on Telegraph Island.

The station lasted just three years and in 1868 the cable was diverted away from Musandam and rerouted via the Iranian island of Hengham. However, even after the telegraph station was decommissioned, British soldiers continued to man this isolated outpost for five tortuous years. It was finally completely abandoned in the 1870s. All you can see today is the location where telegraph operators probably secured their boats. The steps remain steady and wide, but what is left now are only ruins, leaving behind the traces of communication that was in practice those days and which stresses the locational importance of the Strait of Hormuz.

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