Alarming events were in store for Sicily at the beginning of the summer of 1831. On 28 June, small earthquakes rocked the western end of the island, and these continued occurring day after day. On 4 July, the unpleasant scent of sulfur spread through the town of Sciacca. On the 13th, the people of St. Domenico spotted smoke from far offshore. Normally, volcanic activity would be the obvious culprit, but these black plumes were out on the water. Maybe, the residents suggested to one another, a boat was on fire. The crew of a passing ship had other ideas: the captain noted that the water under the smoke was bubbling vigorously. He was convinced that what they were dealing with was a sea monster. But a second ship brought reports of masses of dead fish in the water, entirely undevoured.

This disturbance was, in fact, a volcano erupting from just under the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. By the 17th of July, a new island some 25 feet high had appeared off the coast of Sicily. And that was only the beginning. The volcano went on spewing lava over the course of the next week until the island was four times its original height and seven kilometers around, with two peaks and even two small lakes. The new island lay between Europe and Africa right where the Mediterranean narrowed, putting it in the middle of an ongoing flurry of nautical trade and military maneuvers. Several countries observed simultaneously that the infant rock would likely prove extremely valuable to whichever country owned it, and at least three of them raced to claim it. As it turned out, none of them would succeed.

The first visitor to the island was possibly a Sicilian customs official in a borrowed fishing boat, but if so, his sojourn was not enough to persuade anyone else that the island belonged to Sicily. The British quickly sent a crew over from nearby Malta on the HMS St. Vincent. They landed on the island at the beginning of August, planting a flag in a decisive sort of way and naming the place Graham Land after naval commander Sir James Graham. Irritated but undeterred, Sicily dispatched a ship called the Etna, annexed the new island, and named it Ferdinandea after King Ferdinand II. France, far from discouraged by the claims of the other nations, ordered a prominent geologist by the name of Constant Prévost over to the island at the end of September. Prévost declared the island a French possession, named it Île Julia after the month of July, and surveyed the terrain. Some sources suggest that the Spanish also got into the argument, though if so, their strategy was simply to declare quite loudly that they wanted the island as well.

Things quickly reached a stalemate; Sicily, Great Britain, France, and Spain were all unwilling to yield, and both their governments and their newspapers helped keep the impasse firmly in place. Sicily already owned the larger volcanic island of Pantelleria just beyond Ferdinandea; onlookers easily imagined that further volcanic activity could produce a land-bridge from Sicily to Tunisia, which would have cut off virtually all the marine trade routes of the Mediterranean and imparted impressive new geopolitical powers on its owner.

The dispute received plenty of coverage in European newspapers. Scientists from several countries examined the island, and tourists visited in large numbers. Members of the royal dynasty that had produced King Ferdinand II talked of constructing a resort on Ferdinandea and capitalizing on the world’s curiosity in spite of the international tension. Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott reportedly stopped by. American writer James Fenimore Cooper probably did not, but was interested enough that he later employed the premise of a newborn volcanic island in his 1847 novel The Crater, or Vulcan’s Peak: A Tale of the Pacific. Subsequent works by French authors Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas Sr. were also likely inspired by the events: Verne’s Captain Antifer and The Survivors of the Chancellor and Dumas’s The Speronara contain similar elements.

The autumn of 1831 drew to a close. Sicily, Britain, France, and possibly Spain had made no progress whatsoever towards resolving their conflict. At least three of the nations had been fantasizing about controlling the gates of the mid-Mediterranean, and were not about to let Ferdinandea go easily. Geological forces were more than happy to do so, however.

HMS Melville off the the arriving island
HMS Melville off the the arriving island
A small Sicilian team sent out in mid-December to provide an update on the island brought back unnerving news: they had gone to look at Ferdinandea and had found nothing but open water. They had been looking in precisely the correct place. The island had simply disappeared. The Mediterranean waves had apparently reclaimed Ferdinandea, dragging the short-lived but much-coveted island back beneath the water’s surface. The international argument had been settled by the ultimate deus ex machina ending.

Later study revealed that the entire island—shoreline, peaks, lake basins, and all—had been comprised of a volcanic rock called tephra, which is known for its weakness and susceptibility to erosion. The five-kilometer perimeter of Ferdinandea had been no match for the waves of the Mediterranean, which had erased the bit of land within six months. As if to taunt the nearby species of manic bipedal land-dwelling colonizers, Ferdinandea had slipped just under the surface of the water: its highest point was only ten meters below. Sulking, the British insisted on referring to the seamount as the Graham Shoal (or Graham Bank), and were pleased when the name stuck.

Since its reimmersion in the Mediterranean, the ex-island has still managed to attract attention from a number of countries. In 1987 the American Navy mistook Ferdinandea for a lurking Libyan submarine and bombarded it with depth charges—though they appear not to have done much damage. More recently, amid reports that the island might again return to the surface, Italians sent divers to attach a hefty plaque to the underwater peak, claiming the once and future island for Italy. The plaque broke apart underwater, though whether this was due to vandalism or natural geological processes was impossible to determine. Either way, the top of Ferdinandea still lurks, tantalizingly, about ten meters below the surface of the Mediterranean. The volcano is still active, meaning that it is likely to produce islands again in the future.

The plaque placed upon Ferdinandea, prior to its destruction.
The plaque placed upon Ferdinandea, prior to its destruction.
An Italian political scientist and a French diplomat interviewed by Time in 2000 both stated that Italy would have the strongest claim on any islands that emerged in the region. The Brits have been less relenting, but for now the point is moot. One Italian analyst is reported as saying, “If it’s just a little island, we’re not going to have a big fight over it.” Whether that’s truly the case—and whether Ferdinandea will peek its peak above the surface again—remains to be seen.

Written by Marisa Brook, posted on 03 March 2014. Marisa lives in Toronto, Canada. She collects postcards, fridge magnets, lapel pins, interesting rocks, and linguistics degrees.
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