Great Little Tonbs
A brief history
May 17, 2001
THE TONB ISLANDS. Variations, e.g., Tunb, Tanb, Tomb, Tumb, Tamb. Great
Tonb (26015'N 55016'E) and Little Tonb (26014'N 5508'E) are two hamlet-islands
of the Kish township, in the county of Abu Musa, Hormuzgan Province of Iran.
The lesser Tonb is situated 11 kilometers west of Great Tonb, and they lie
38 and 27 kilometers southeast of Lengeh, respectively.
Dark in color and almost triangular in shape, Little Tonb is about 2
kilometers from northwest to southeast, and 1.5 kilometers across in the
south; it rises to a maximum height of 36 meters. There ares patches of
saltworts; their prickly leaves though are no match for the bite of the
venomous snakes that infest the island. The reptiles share this desolate
homestead with seabirds, to whom the islet is a favorable breeding place.
It has no drinking water; it is not known to have ever been inhabited, at
least on a permanent basis. The name Tonb-e Nameeveh, meaning a "barren"
or "fruitless" Tonb, which was noted in Persian/Arabic orthography
by Karsten Niehbur in the 1760s, was quite an apt name for this islet, just
like its lesser known early nineteenth century name of Nama'an (na
= not or without + ma'an = watered, amenity). Overtime the suffix
nameeveh lost out to variations like nabeeveh, and nabiyu,
and then they became the nabi and bani of the nineteenth and
twentieth century usage, which the Arabs of the lower gulf and Englishmen
In contrast to its putative dependent, the greater Tonb is a paradise,
a notion that is captured in part in its Persian name Naz, meaning
"nice," which was briefly in use in the eighteenth century. This
brown circular isle, with a 4-kilometers diameter and a maximum height of
52 meters, was covered with grass in the late winter and early spring months,
and traditionally provided pasturage for the animals sent to the island
from the Persian and Arabian mainlands. In the nineteenth century, the British
colonial officers stationed in the Persian Gulf made regular use of the
isle for picnics, during which they hunted and coursed antelopes, goats,
and rabbits. In the 1930s, the British naval officers considered, albeit
briefly, expanding the island's recreational possibilities by adding a golf
course, football (soccer) field, and cricket ground to the landscape, which
has been dominated for more than a century and a half by a very old banyan
tree located near the center of the island.
The terms tonb and tal, which mean "hill" in
the Persian dialect spoken in southern Persia, occur with frequency in an
environment dominated by the maritime ranges that extend along the Persian
coast from Bushehr to Lengeh: An early evidence of the use of tonb
is found in Istakhri's 10th century description of the Ardeshir Kureh district
of Fars. The mound-like appearance of the Tonb Islands is no doubt responsible
for the origin of Tonb, whose development into Tomb as a toponym
owed much to the soft and almost m-like sound of n in Tonb
and later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to its homonymic similarity
to the familiar English word tomb, meaning "grave." In
connection with the Tonbs, the word tal occurred irregularly and only in
the early twentieth century when reference to Great Tonb was made in the
form of Tal-e Mar and Tonb-e Mar, meaning "Hill of Snakes."
The earliest evidence of the softening of n to m is found
in Ibn Balkhi's twelfth century Farsnameh, in whose list of the islands
off Ardeshir Kureh the one called Dam (or Dom) corresponded
with Great Tonb, in which name the appearance of d was owed possibly
to the phonetic interchageability of and d and t. In the sixteenth
century, the Portuguese referred to the Tonbs as Tomon, possibly
a derivative of the Persian plural Tonban or Toman. In Khawjeh
Abdul Qadir's 1786 itinerary, Great Tonb is given in the Persian script
as Tm, which could be read as Tam or Tom.
Possibly related to Ibn Balkhi's Dam or Dom is the sixteenth
century isole Doma, the name for Great Tonb mentioned by the Italian
geographer Giovanni Ramusio. It meant "Dome Island," an apt reference,
in any language, to an island whose description or appearance reminded one
of a dome: The same image was conjured and preserved in the Persian names
Gonbad-e Bozorg and Gonbad-e Kuchek that were used to refer
to Great and Little Tonb, respectively, in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries.
The differentiation on the basis of size, bozorg (big) and kuchek
(small) was a practice that originated with the Persians distinguishing
one gonbad (dome) from another. That practice was continued by the
English in the form of Great and Little Tonb, and was later adopted and
perpetuated in the parlance of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf in
the 1980s when reference was made to the Tonbs in terms of al-kubra
(big) and as-sughra (small).
The Tonbs owe their present-day notoriety not to the rumored discovery
of oil and gas by the Union Oil of California near the islands in 1971,
but rather to a virulent dispute about their ownership since 1904, first
between Iran and Great Britain and since December 1971 between the United
Arab Emirates and Iran.
Reference to Great Tonb as an Iranian island is found in Ibn Balkhi's
twelfth century Farsnameh and Hamdallah Mustawfi Kazvini's fourteen
century Nuzhat al-Qulub. The Tonbs were in the dominions of the kings
of Hormuz from 1330 or so until Hormuz's capitulation to the Portuguese
in 1507. The Tonbs remained a part of the Hormuzi-Portuguese adminsitration
until 1622, when the Portuguese were expelled from the Persian littoral
by the Persian central government. During this period, the human geography,
commerce, and territorial adminsitration of the Tonbs, along with Abu Musa
and Sirri islands, became intimately connected with the Province of Fars,
notably the Persian ports of Lengeh and Kung, and the nearby Qeshm and Hengam
Maps of every description, authority, and country of origin, as well
as admiralty and maritime handbooks and surveys, official documents belonging
to the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries reflected the longstanding
and common understanding of mankind and the considered opinion of the Persian
and British governments that the Tonbs belonged to Persia.
In the nineteenth century, the competition for pasturage on Great Tonb
between the herders from the Persian coast and visitors from the Arab shores
of the lower gulf often degenerated into fights. At times the British authorities
would intervene in these "grass wars" and would invariably order
the sheikhs of the lower gulf, who were under the British protection, to
have their subjects evacuate the island and take with them the horses that
the sheikhs of Dubai, Sharjah, Ras al-Khaimah, and other localities would
send there for grazing. The Persian officials, headquartered in Lengeh or
Bandar Abbas, would mind the peace and good order of the island, which included
meditation of local disputes.
Great Tonb is known to have been inhabited since the fourteenth century,
even though periodically droughts may have caused its inhabitants to retire
to the Persian and Arabian coasts or take temporary refuge in other islands.
Its eighteenth through early twentieth century inhabitants consisted of
Persians and Persian Arabs from Lengeh and the Larestan coast, and Arabs
from the lower gulf.
The Great Tonb's population would increase during pearling, fishing,
and grazing seasons. Smugglers, Arab and Persian, found a convenient shelter
for their contraband trade with the Persian coast. No lesser of an attraction
was the island to refugees, political refugees. In 1856, one Ubaid ibn Jumah,
of the Al Bu Falasah section of the ubiquitous Bani Yas tribe of the lower
gulf, fell out with his cousin and brother-in-law, Sheikh Hashir ibn Maktum,
the ruler of Dubai. Consequently, Ubaid and 15 families, with 13 pearling
boats, set out from Dubai and sought refuge on Great Tonb. However, a year
later, a severe drought befell Tonb, and Ubaid and his people immigrate
further east to Hengam Island. Similarly, in 1885, the governor of Qeshm
Island escaped his enemies and took refuge on Great Tonb, where he was received
with respect on the orders of the governor of Lengeh; the governor of lengeh
mediated the dispute and the refugee returned to Qeshm.
Politically, the Tonbs were dependencies of Lengeh when in 1903 the India
Government, apprehensive about Persian and Russian intentions in the Persian
Gulf, ordered the Qasemi Sheikh of Sharjah, a British protege, to hoist
his standard on Great Tonb. This interfered with the planned arrival of
the Persian customs service to the island in 1904. For the next sixty-five
years, Britain advanced and supported the claim that the Tonbs belonged
to the Qasemi sheikhs of Sharjah (and later Ras al-Khaimah). At every opportunity,
Persia protested the Anglo-Qasemi occupation of the Tonbs, including the
erection on Great Tonb of a lighthouse in 1912 on the northeast side, which
construction the British then held out as a sign of Qasemi sovereignty.
Persia also challenged regularly the Anglo-Qasemi control of the islands
by despatching naval vessels and delegations to inspect Great Tonb. On 30
November 1971, as the British colonial commitments in the Persian Gulf drew
to a close, the Iranian forces took possession of the Tonbs, without any
opposition from Britain.
In 1953, the island had a population of 500 souls, which consisted of
Persians and Persian Arabs from Lengeh and the Bani Yas migrants from Dubai.
By 1963, the population had dwindled to 100 persons, and to a mere 70 by
the close of the decade. By November 1971 the number had risen suddenly
to 250; this was in part because of the offshore explorations by the Standard
Oil of California, and in part due to the efforts by the Sheikh of Ras al-Khaimah
to settle the island with his subjects in order to gain an upper hand in
the Anglo-Iranian negotiations about the future of the island. At that time,
Ras al-Khaimah also established a 6-man police station on the island. In
the aftermath of the Iranian takeover of Great Tonb many of the Ras al-Khaimah
subjects returned to Ras al-Khaimah. Subsequently, the Iranian government
fortified the island and began a modest program of municipal services there.
In the face of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), including the so-called
"tanker war" among Iran, Iraq, and the U.S. forces, the periodic
claims to the Tonbs by the United Arab Emirates, and persistent U.S. naval
presence in the Persian Gulf, the Iranian government established a garrison
and a naval station on Great Tonb in the mid-1980s and installed anti-aircraft
batteries on the island in the early 1990s. The Iranian fisheries organization
operates a cold storage facility on the island. The island's population
of 350 (1993) to about 35 (2001) is served by a landing strip, a modest
pier, a generator, a mosque or two, a cooperative store, and a primary school.
The hulk of the housing units in the state of unfinished since 1978 tell
of a once greater ambition for the island.