The islands of the Gulf are notable neither for their size nor their variety. Other than Bahrain, a detailed survey of which is available in Archive Editions’ publication the Records of Bahrain 1820-1960, and the Iranian island of Qishm, they are small, predominantly uninhabited and exhibit little variation in topography and vegetation. The majority of islands are situated close to the shores of the Gulf. Despite such distinctly modest natural endowments, these islands have experienced a long and turbulent history.
The islands of the Gulf have long been a lure to competing European colonial powers
For most of the sixteenth century the Portuguese occupied the islands - Qishm, Hormuz, Larak and Henjam - lining the northern shores of the entrance to the Gulf. With British assistance the Persians expelled the Portuguese in 1620. In the mid-seventeenth century during the period of the Anglo- Dutch wars in Europe, Qishm was attacked by Dutch forces, while over a century later a Dutch garrison was expelled from Kharg island by Persian forces from Bushire. The mid- eighteenth century also saw the French capture the British East India Company´s factory at Bandar Abbas. Throughout the nineteenth century Britain, having apparently seen off these sporadic challenges to her supremacy, was able to control Gulf affairs through the maintenance of peace at sea. After Britain´s suppression of Qasimi overtures towards regional hegemony in 1820, a garrison was stationed on Qishm island. Though this did not last for long, permanent naval facilities had been established almost unnoticed at Basidu, on the western tip of the island, by the mid-1820s. This presence served to preserve the maritime peace, to which the states of the Gulf littoral had committed themselves in treaties with Britain of 1820, 1843 and 1853. During the mid-nineteenth century Britain had also occupied Kharg Island to remonstrate against Persia´s actions at the height of the Herat crisis. The Bushire Residency was also moved to Kharg when local conditions on the Persian Coast threatened dangerously.
The islands of the Gulf have long been disputed by the local seafaring powers in the Gulf
Ever since their occupation in the late eighteenth century by the Al Khalifah, whose control survives to this day, the Bahrain islands have been claimed at various intervals by Persia, Muscat and the Ottoman Porte. Aside from this example (which is not covered in the collection), the first Perso-Arab dispute over the islands of the Gulf occurred over the island dependencies of Bandar Abbas - Qishm, Hormuz, Larak and Henjam. For seventy years until 1868 these islands were intermittently controlled by the Muscati Sultan, who leased them from the Persian Government. The long-standing Perso-Arab dispute over the middle Lower Gulf islands of Tamb and Abu Musa essentially arose in 1887 when a Persian party placed a flagstaff on Sirri island further north. In 1904 the Persians, who had claimed sovereignty over all the islands in the Gulf as early as 1844, placed flagstaffs on Tamb and Abu Musa - judged by Britain to respectively belong to the Shaikhs of Ras al Khaimah and Sharjah.
During the nineteenth-century Britain´s geographic knowledge of the waters, islands and coastline of the Gulf was increased considerably
In 1818 Captain Robert Taylor, Assistant Political Agent in Turkish Arabia, published his notes on the islands and shorelines of the Gulf. Twelve years later in 1830 (approx.) Indian Navy Captain George Barnes Bruck´s classic survey - A Memoir descriptive of the Navigation of the Gulf of Persia - was printed. The detailed findings of this report were updated by the Admiralty in 1864 to constitute the first edition of the Persian Gulf Pilot. With the appearance of J. G. Lorimer´s epic Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia in 1908, Britain´s geographic knowledge of the region had evolved almost completely.
Strategic location of the Gulf islands
Control of access to the Gulf had long been an all-consuming British preoccupation. In the first decade of the twentieth century her presence at Basidu was augmented by the development of a British telegraphic and coaling station at Henjam while the Blue Ensign was hoisted at Sheep Island on the Musandam Peninsula on the southern shores of the Strait of Hormuz. Viceroy Curzon was particularly determined at this stage to preserve the Gulf as a British Lake and eliminate the growing threats perceived from Germany, Russia, France and the Ottoman Porte to her omnipotency there. The strategic role of the Gulf islands remains as important today as it ever was. This is underlined in no uncertain terms by the tragic Kuwait crisis of August 1990. Iraq´s failure to secure a lease of the islands of Warba and Bubiyan was probably a prominent factor in their decision to invade Kuwait, for control of the islands is necessary for full sovereignty to be exercised over the Khor Abdullah, the vital waterway linking the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr in the Khor Zubair with the Gulf. The dispute over these islands can be traced back to Ottoman times.
The economic importance of the Gulf islands before oil
Disputes over the sovereignty of the Gulf islands and imperial rivalries in the Gulf were accentuated at the turn of the twentieth century by vigorous European competition to secure possession of the red oxide deposits of the Lower Gulf islands. Germany´s acquisition of the Abu Musa concession in particular preoccupied Britain´s energies. As access to the pearl banks of the Gulf was a common right of all Arabs, whatever their nationality, their exploitation did little to raise the indeterminate status of many islands. One of the most productive pearl banks was situated just off Halul island.
The evolving importance of the Gulf islands in Britain´s imperial link with India and their navigational function
In the first decade of the twentieth-century, the Persian telegraph line was extended to Henjam while on various occasions in the 1920s the incorporation of various islands into the Imperial Air Route was actively considered by the British Government, whether for use as landing grounds or purely as fuel-storage dumps. The various islands, reefs and shoals of the Gulf naturally played a vital navigational role. When the British India Government assumed responsibility for the lighting and buoying of the Gulf immediately prior to the Great War their proposals for updating the system involved the placing of beacons and the stationing of lights on many of these features. As Britain generally notified the respective sovereigns of these islands that such developments were to take place, their international status often came into sharp focus.
The role of the Gulf islands in Anglo-Persian relations
The right to control the foreign relations of her protege states on the southern Gulf littoral had been granted Britain in treaties of 1892, 1899 (for Kuwait) and 1916 (for Qatar) Persia´s claims to Bahrain, Tamb and Abu Musa dominated the seemingly endless Anglo-Persian negotiations of the late 1920s and early 1930s. While no resolution to these issues was reached, Britain´s decision to abandon Basidu and Henjam in 1935, long a source of interdepartmental friction, ushered in an improved phase in Anglo-Persian relations.
Oil and the Gulf islands
While nearly all disputes over the sovereignty of the Gulf islands before the mid-1930s had been between Britain (on behalf of her protégé states) and Persia, the scramble for oil from the mid 1930s onwards but most importantly in the post-war era led to intra-Arab disputes over sovereignty, generally between those states who had awarded their concessions to American and British oil companies. Before this time there was frequently no record or any Arab or Persian claim ever having been entered to many of the Gulf islands. The incentives to establish sovereignty over such islands of undetermined status now grew dramatically as the various states of the Gulf littoral were eager to maximise the maritime concession areas they could offer the major oil companies for the exploitation of the Gulf seabed´s vast hydrocarbon deposits. As Sir Rupert Hay stated in 1954, one year after his retirement as Political Resident on the Persian Gulf.
Before oil was discovered, many of these rocks and sandbanks were ownerless - the resort of a few stray fisher-folk and cormorants. Recently however there has been great competition to prove ownership and, as in the case of such islands it is often impossible to prove any constructive act of sovereignty in the past; there was at one time an epidemic of establishing on them markers with inscriptions asserting ownership. These were usually removed as soon as they had been put up. Attempts have also been made to convert shoals which appear only at low tide, into islands by erecting cairns on them. (Hay, ´The Persian Gulf States and their Boundary Problems´, Geographical Journal no. 120 (1954), p, 431).
With the grant of oil concessions, the central Gulf islands of Farsi, Arabi, Harqus were disputed between three parties - Kuwait, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Britain´s 1939 ruling that the Hawar group, lying just off the western Qatar coast, belonged to Bahrain set in motion a territorial dispute which remains active today.
The role of islands in the definition of the Gulf´s territorial waters and continental shelf boundaries
The evolution of the political geography of the Gulf seabed was accelerated considerably by the issue in late May 1949 of two Royal Pronouncements by the Saudi Government respectively extending national territorial waters to six miles and establishing ownership over the resources of the seabed and subsoil of the continental shelf beyond her territorial waters. Claims to six-mile territorial waters in the Gulf were nothing new, following similar Ottoman and Persian decrees of 1914 and 1934. By 1960 all states of the Gulf littoral not under British protection had extended such limits to 12 miles, while Britain would only recognise limits of 3 miles for her protégés. The Saudi continental shelf proclamation produced a more instant reaction from neighbouring states however. In June 1949 virtually identical decrees were issued by Britain on behalf of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the Trucial Coast states. The role of islands in determining continental shelf boundaries and access to resources thus suddenly came into play. Islands were considered, to varying degrees, in the post war formulation of the Gulf´s various concession area agreements which crudely defined the seabed resource boundaries of each littoral state. Islands whose sovereignty was agreed were not always given full effect when continental shelf boundaries were allocated. The problem was that in the narrow waters of the Gulf, concession areas frequently overlapped. The position was complicated further when the ownership of these islands was disputed by two or more parties. A British policy towards jurisdiction over the Gulf waters gradually evolved after frequent interdepartmental meetings and discussions with the Americans, in which such issues as the precise definition of an island, whether such a feature was natural or artificial, and what was the territorial effect of an island, were addressed. In 1958 Bahrain and Arabia agreed the region´s first maritime boundary delimitation.
Volume 8: 1930-1932
Volumes 10-12: The Gulf Islands, 1936-1947
Volume 10: 1935-1937
Volume 11: 1938-1944