The Island That Appeared and Disappeared

By Awake! writer in Italy

ON June 28, 1831, a violent earthquake hit the west coast of the Mediterranean island of Sicily. At sea, one mariner felt the shock and thought his vessel had struck a sandbank.

For days afterward, the waters off the coast of Sicily continued to boil. Dead fish floated on the surface. The air stank of sulfur. Pumice stones washed up on the beach.

On July 10, Giovanni Corrao, captain of the Neapolitan brigantine Teresina, was sailing in the Mediterranean when he saw a sight he could not believe​—a huge column of water and smoke that roared to 60 feet [20 m] above sea level. “A great noise like thunder” was also heard.

Ferdinand II of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies ordered the warship Etna to investigate matters. News of these occurrences also reached Malta, then under British rule. Not to be outdone, Sir Henry Hotham, British vice admiral on the island, likewise dispatched ships “to determine the exact position on the charts, and to make every other observation on the nature of the phenomenon.”

Thus began a controversy that continues to this very day.

 An Island Is Born

By July 19, 1831, in a region between Sicily and the coast of Africa, a new island could be seen​—spawned by the eruption of an underwater volcano. Charles Swinburne, commander of the British sloop Rapid, was rounding the western tip of Sicily when he saw a high, irregular column of very white smoke or steam. Swinburne steered straight for it. As night fell, brilliant flashes mingled with the smoke, which remained clearly visible even by moonlight. Eruptions of lurid fire arose in its midst. At daybreak, when the smoke cleared a bit, he could see “a small hillock of a dark colour a few feet above the sea.”

Within a month the island stood some 200 feet [65 m] out of the water and had a circumference of about two and a half miles [3.5 km]. “This event has naturally excited the strongest sensation in these islands,” reported the Malta Government Gazette, “and many persons have already repaired to the scene of action.” Among them was Professor Friedrich Hoffmann, a Prussian geologist who happened to be doing research in Sicily. Hoffmann came to within a mere half mile [1 km] of the island and was able to see it “with the greatest clarity.” Wary of possible danger, however, Hoffmann refused to disembark.

Less cautious was Captain Humphrey Senhouse, who on August 2, it was reported, landed on the island and planted the British Union Jack there. He named the island Graham Island, in honor of Sir James Graham, first lord of the Admiralty.

Catania University in Sicily entrusted the study of the island to Carlo Gemellaro, professor of natural history. He named it Ferdinandea, after Ferdinand II. Unimpressed by the news of the flag already flying on it, Ferdinand formally declared the island to be part of his kingdom, even though it lay outside the territorial waters of Sicily.

Last on the scene were the French. Geologist Constant Prévost named the island Julia, as it had appeared during the month of July. He too raised his country’s flag over the isle. The purpose of this gesture, he wrote, was “to inform all who will follow that France misses no opportunity to show her interest in scientific matters.”

Disputes over ownership of the island escalated. According to a recent article in the London Times, Britain, Italy, and France came to “the brink of conflict” over this speck of land.

The Demise of the Island

The controversy over the island​—variously called Julia, Ferdinandea, or Graham * to this very day—​proved to be short-lived. “The island is shrinking day by day,” wrote Hoffmann after a visit in September, “and if this destruction, of which we were witnesses, proceeds . . . , the storms of the coming winter will suffice to demolish [it] within a few months.”

By December the island had collapsed on itself and was reduced to a hazardous reef a few feet below sea level. “All that remained of Julia Island,” wrote Italian volcanologist Giuseppe Mercalli, “were the many names imposed upon it by travelers of various nations who had the fortune to witness the spectacle of its formation and disappearance.”

Rising Again?

The end of the story? Hardly! The area where the island once stood is still geologically active. According to Sicilian historian Salvatore Mazzarella, today it is “as strategically important as it was in the 19th century.” Some geologists believe that the island will rise again. Tensions regarding who might own the yet-to-be-resurrected isle are already mounting.

The tale of the island that appeared​—and disappeared—​has thus become another sad page in the story of human rulership. Italian journalist Filippo D’Arpa puts it well when he calls this tale “a metaphor on the ridiculousness of power.”


^ par. 16 At least four other names were proposed for the island​—Corrao, Hotham, Nerita, and Sciacca.

[Picture on page 26]

A painting of the 1831 eruption

[Credit Line]

Copyright Peter Francis/The Open University