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The hardship posting to end all hardship postings

Round the bend
Tales from Britain's rule in India and beyond

image copyrightMatthew Teller

It was the hardship posting to end all hardship postings. British officers went quite literally round the bend to get there, writes Matthew Teller, and perhaps sometimes metaphorically too.

In 1863 Britain was looking to strengthen its control over the Gulf. The eager new ambassador to the region, Political Resident Lewis Pelly, drafted a letter to the government in Bombay.

He proposed moving the Residency from Bushehr to the Musandam peninsula - a fingertip of land pointing north from Arabia into the narrow Strait of Hormuz. The small fishing village of Khasab would become a sort of Fortress Britain, helping to expand trade and consolidate control over nearby sheikhdoms - and the peninsula would be an ideal way-station on the proposed new telegraph route between London and India.

Bombay ignored the idea, except in one respect.

image copyrightBritish Library
image captionCape Musandam (Musseldom) and Hormuz (Ormuz)

In April 1864, the London Globe reported excitedly on "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 Musandam was selected as the site of a crucial repeater station.

It is hard to reach even today. Khasab hides between immense cliffs that plunge directly into the sea, forming narrow, high-sided fjords. The heat and humidity can be intense. Most of the peninsula's scattered coastal villages are still only accessible from the water, backed by impenetrable walls of rock.

The Brits chose to build their station several hundred yards offshore, on Jazirat Al-Maqlab (Maqlab Island), a bare, rocky islet within one of the fjords.

image copyrightBritish Library
image captionAn 1862 map showing the proposed line of the cable over the peninsula - with Maqlab Island circled in red

The telegraph line opened in March 1865, but there were misgivings from the outset. In a letter to the governor of Bombay, Col Patrick Stewart, director-general of the Indo-European Telegraph, wrote that the local people "are strangely ignorant of English power. I am most strongly of opinion that it would be most imprudent to leave our station without the protection of an armed vessel."

For the men garrisoned there to keep a vital line of international communication open, life must have been extraordinarily taxing. Marooned for months at a time, they had little to do and nowhere to go, whiling away their time in what even to India-toughened Europeans must have felt like a furnace.

image copyrightMatthew Teller

Apocryphal accounts speak of the monotony driving men insane. There were deaths on the island, though it's unclear whether they were from illness, suicide, murder, or some other cause.

Either way, the station didn't last long. By June 1867, Col Stewart was writing: "In a purely sanitary point of view, it would be desirable to move the establishment to a less confined locality. The heat… the high encircling rocks and limited view to seaward must have a depressing effect upon Europeans, especially during the hot season."

Britain abandoned the island the following year, and laid a new telegraph line along the northern shore of the Gulf.

Today, we talk of going "round the bend" to mean going mad. The phrase is of 19th Century naval origin, and one theory says that it refers to the journey to, or from, the island now known as Telegraph Island - reached from India by means of a looping, bending route through the Strait of Hormuz and along a mountain-flanked inlet.

Those posted "round the bend" perhaps feared losing their sanity. And once on the island, they doubtless spent their time longing to go "round the bend" in reverse - through the barren fjords and back to the home comforts of India.

image copyrightBritish Library
image captionLewis Pelly's 1863 letter, in which he suggested moving the residency to "Cassab on the Mussundoom Promontory"
image copyrightBritish Library
image captionArticles of agreement between the Sultan of Muscat and the British government on the proposed extension of the telegraph line from Persia - signed 17 November 1864. Article 1 begins: “My ancient and faithful ally, the British Government, is at liberty to construct one or more lines of telegraphic communication...”

Round the Bend is a series of tales from the days when Britain ruled India and the Gulf, told with documents newly digitised by the British Library. You can explore the archive yourself.

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