The island was formed in 1863 by two previously separate islands which were still separated by a shallow water. The seam between the former eastern and western parts is called Tüskendör ("through in between").
Mentioned as Burchana fabaria (island of beans) by both Strabo and Pliny the elder, Borkum by the time of Charlemagne the island was part of a larger island called Bant, which consisted of the present day islands of Borkum, Juist and the western part of Norderney.
In 1484, Bant passed to the Earls of East Frisia, who developed trade, and the island became known as a centre of piracy and whaling. By 1781, violent storms in the 18th century had led to Bant becoming three islands. As whaling decreased, the island suffered from poverty, resulting in depopulation, with the island's population falling from 852 in 1776 to 406 by 1811. The first tourists arrived on the island in 1834 and the island's fortunes improved as a tourist resort.
In Mexico as I saw it, published by Thomas Nelson, Mrs Alec Tweedie, writing in 1911 about a trip of 1900 to Mexico, compares the brick roads of Monterrey with those of Borkum, "the one spot on earth from which Jews are banished". This had to do with the aggressive and successful campaign of German tourists to keep Borkum free from Jewish visitors, as celebrated in the antisemitic "Borkum-Lied".
In 1910 scandal hit Europe when Captain Trench was arrested and went to trial for espionage with another man Lieutenant Vivian H. Brandon for photographing the military installations on the island.
The island is partially car-free. Off-season, driving by car is permitted everywhere, otherwise there are car-free zones. The only town on the island is also called Borkum. There is an air field in the Tüskendör area. Borkum is served by ferries from Emden, Germany and Eemshaven, the Netherlands. Passengers get a free train ride between the harbour and the town of Borkum.