Despite its rather unprepossessing appearance today, Telegraph Island was once a crucial hub in the nineteenth-century information superhighway, and a vital link in the chain of communication between Britain and her Indian empire. At a time when mail between London and Bombay took at least a month to arrive, messages could be sent between the two cities in as little as two hours via submarine telegraph cables – or the “Victorian internet”, as it has been neatly described.
In 1864, the governments of India, Turkey and Persia agreed to join up their existing land telegraphs using a submarine cable through the Gulf and on to Karachi. Almost 2400km of cable was manufactured and laid out, passing through Musandam en route. In 1865, a small telegraph repeater station was constructed on the island formerly known as Jazirat al Maqlab, but ever since as Telegraph Island, a site chosen since it offered greater security than the mainland against potentially hostile local tribes. The station played a crucial role in the success of the cable. Telegraphic signals relayed over copper cable inevitably fade with distance, and the function of the station was to receive and relay, or “repeat”, signals received from either London or Bombay.
Unfortunately, the location was one of the remotest in the empire. The mental and physical privations suffered by officials marooned on Telegraph Island quickly became the stuff of colonial legend, so much so that relief crews sailing eastwards around the tip of the Musandam peninsula coined the expression “going round the bend” to describe their mercy missions – an expression which has since become Oman’s lasting contribution to the English vernacular and a fitting tribute to the sufferings of Telegraph Island’s Victorian castaways.
The station lasted just three years and in 1868 the cable was diverted away from Musandam and rerouted via the Iranian island of Hengham.