Ferdinandea: The Island that Everyone Wanted and Nobody Got

In 1831, four naval countries of Europe–Britain, France, Spain, and the then-independent kingdom of Sicily–argued over ownership of an island in the Mediterranean Sea. An island which lasted less than half a year before vanishing.

ferdinandea

The Island of Ferdinandea, as drawn in the logbook of the first ship to see it.

For several weeks in the middle of the summer of 1831, residents of the town of Sciacca, on the island kingdom of Sicily, were rocked by tremors, rumbling, and small earthquakes. This was not unusual: Sicily is heavily volcanic, and the residents had gone through many eruptions large and small. But this one was odd, because no one could find any crater or opening on the island where any eruption was taking place.

On July 4, smoke and sulphur vapors did finally appear–but not on the island. Instead, large billowing pillars of smoke were seen offshore, in the Mediterranean Sea. Coastal villagers on Sicily thought it was a ship on fire, but a passing brig called the Gustav reported, on July 7, that they had seen what they thought was a sea monster in a patch of boiling water. It turned out to be a small island that had been thrust about 25 feet above the sea surface by an underwater volcanic eruption. Within two weeks, the new island had grown to a height of almost 200 feet and measured about a mile across.

One might think that the emergence of a tiny new volcanic island might be of interest only to geologists. But this hunk of still-smoking bare rock had managed to appear in the middle of a very strategic location–right where the Mediterranean Sea narrowed between Sicily and Tunisia. Any naval power that could establish a base here could completely control the flow of shipping between the two halves of the Mediterranean. All the European countries with a naval presence in the area rushed to stake their claim to the unexpected new strategic asset.

The first to reach the new island was Sicily, which already owned an island nearby called Pantelleria.. On July 17, a customs official in Sciacca named Michele Fiorini ordered a local fishing boat to take him out to the new island. The British, meanwhile, dispatched the HMS St Vincent from its island base on Malta, and when Captain Sir Humphrey Le Fleming Senhouse landed on August 2, he ceremoniously planted a British flag and claimed the island for the King of England, naming it Graham Island in honor of the First Lord of the Admiralty. The Sicilians responded to that by sending their own navy ship, the Aetna, to plant their own flag on August 17 and reiterate their claim to the island. They named it Ferdinandea, after the Sicilian King. Meanwhile the French, who had colonial possessions in north Africa, including Tunisia, also wanted the island as a base to protect their African coast from the British, and sent a ship with geologist Constant Prevost from the Royal Geological Society, in late September, to both study the island and claim it for France. He named it Isle de Julia, after the month in which it had formed. All three navies sent ships to patrol around the island, each warily watching the others. They were soon joined by Spanish ships after the King of Spain decided that if the other naval powers wanted the island, he did too.

Scientists and officials from several countries rushed to examine it, and even the celebrated author Sir Walter Scott briefly explored the island. In the royal palaces of Europe, there followed months of diplomatic wrangling and public debate, as newspapers and pamphleteers in each country proclaimed their country’s case for ownership and sometimes threatened military action against the others.

In the end, however, it was Mother Nature who settled the dispute. Ferdinandea, or Graham Island, or Julia Island, or whatever the heck anyone wanted to call it, was made from a big pile of loose gravel-like material called “tephra”, and the constant pounding of waves steadily washed it away. As the world watched helplessly, the prized island that everyone wanted shrank smaller and smaller. By December 17, less than half a year after it first appeared out of the sea, the entire island was gone, crumbled away under the waves. Today, the top of the underwater volcano that was once an island is about twenty feet below the surface.

In 1968, there were some underwater rumblings and releases of volcanic gases at the site. Hoping that a new island would emerge again, Sicilian officials dropped a metal plaque onto the underwater mountain with an image of the old flag of the Kingdom of Sicily and the inscription “Ferdinandea Island was and remains Sicilian”. But no island appeared and the volcanic rumblings ended.

Given modern interpretations of the laws surrounding territorial waters, it is all but certain that any new island that might emerge at Ferdinandea would indeed belong legally to Sicily and Italy.

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Forgotten mysteries, oddities and unknown stories from history, nature and science.