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January 21, 2009

Ferdinandea Island

Ferdinandea, at approximately its largest. Public domain image, taken from the published version of the log of the ship Il Gustavo, 1831.

South of Sicily, Italy can boast of several sub-tropical islands. They’re a bit too dry and lacking in fresh water to be slices of Eden, but the snorkeling is said to be unparalleled in Europe. Apart from that, all just barely make their presence known in history. Pantelleria was a place for the Roman empire to banish problematic nobles, while Lampedusa was the site of a LORAN-C radio navigation station until 1994. In 1986 Libya fired two SCUDs at it, just one link in a dismal chain of tit-for-tat violence punctuated by the bombing of La Belle Discotheque in Berlin, American airstrikes on Tripoli and Benghazi, and the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

In the middle of all that, in 1987 the US Navy believed they’d detected a Libyan submarine under the water between Sicily and Pantelleria. Some depth charges were dropped on it, but it didn’t sink. This was because it wasn’t a submarine at all, but rather the remnants of an island in one corner of the shallow Graham Shoal. Ferdinandea had, at least metaphorically, surfaced for the first time in well over a century.

For such a tiny—and intermittently existing—place, Ferdinandea Island seems peculiarly able to cause strain in international relations. Besides the case of mistaken identity in the 20th century, it brought trouble to three countries in the 19th.

The uppermost portion of the Graham Shoal is Empedocles, a massive underwater volcano which has been erupting on and off since at least the 3rd century BC. It seems to have lifted its head above the water for a short while at the time, but records are sketchy and the island clearly subsided soon after: there’s no record of any land in the area for two thousand years that ships passed through the busy Strait of Sicily afterwards. In the 1600s, however, Empedocles became active again and periodically poked its tip above the surface before being eroded away by the sea.

In 1831 it erupted one more time. Another island was formed, considerably larger than any of the others. On July 7th, the captain of the ship Gustavo reported a small islet some eight meters high, spitting tephra into the air. Then, during the night of July 11-12 it expanded massively, and a twin-peaked island some seven kilometers around and sixty meters high was presented to the world.

First to land on the island was Michele Fiorini, a customs official from the town of Sciacca on Sicily, who commandeered a fishing boat on July 17th and went for a look. The British were next, as they had occupied nearby Malta since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. That was intended to secure the Royal Navy routes to the eastern Mediterranean and, as another island in the Strait of Sicily might have threatened those, the HMS St Vincent was dispatched to take a look. The spectacularly named Sir Humphrey Le Fleming Senhouse planted the Union Jack in August and to him the new land was Graham Island (after his boss, then-First Lord of the Admiralty Sir James Graham—Antarctica’s Graham Land is named after him too, which is the only way anyone hears of him in the 21st century).

This prodded the Sicilians into action (Sicily being an independent kingdom occupying the southern half of modern Italy in those days), and their king Ferdinand II formally annexed the volcano, modestly naming it Ferdinandea. He dispatched a flag with a ship—named the Etna, appropriately enough—and it was planted a week after the British one.

The French were up next: having invaded nearby Algeria the year before, they too were interested in the islet for strategic reasons. To them, it was Île Julia in honor of its month of emergence. Constant Prévost, co-founder of the Geological Society of France, landed on the island to investigate its volcanism and—not incidentally—lay claim to it for the Kingdom of France.

Fortunately for European peace, the island had a major defect common to new volcanic islands: there was nothing holding it together. It was a loose collection of tephra, and the ocean wore away at it relentlessly. Just a few weeks after it appeared, observers noticed that it was getting smaller. By December 17th, two Sicilian officials reported back to the government in Naples that Ferdinandea was entirely gone. The island had slipped back below the surface, short-circuiting the diplomatic incident.

For a barely-existent speck, the island was curiously popular with the public too. Before it sank it had become a tourist attraction, visitors wandering around its smoking moonscape and examining the sulfurous lakes that dotted its craters. Sir Walter Scott was one of the visitors, and that’s not even Ferdinandea’s most notable connection to the world of literature. James Fennimore Cooper (of The Last of the Mohicans fame) wrote a novel based on it, The Crater, though he did move the setting to the Pacific Ocean.

Even with the island gone, the British and Italians did keep an eye on the area, which was a hazard to navigation with a depth of just a few meters. The British in particular were notorious for naming every conceivable thing that could snag one of their ships, so by default Captain Senhouse was vindicated when the name Graham Shoal stuck. Occasionally there were volcanic rumbles in the area, but Ferdinandea never poked its nose out again. The last time there was any activity from Empedocles was 1968, when some gas bubbled up from it to the surface. Looking to avoid a replay of 1831’s jockeying, the local authorities dropped a plaque on the shelf reading “l’Isola Ferdinandea era e resta dei Siciliani”—“Ferdinandea Island was and remains Sicilian”. In 2000 there were unsubstantiated reports in the Italian press—picked up by the wire services and reported in places like the BBC and Time Magazine—that Ferdinandea was going to rise above the water again. It didn’t.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2009 4:44 PM

    James Fenimore Cooper was “of ‘Last of the Mohicans’ fame.” Washington Irving was the Sleepy Hollow guy, although since he was doing consul duty in the Med somewhere around then, he may have visited Ferdinandea, too.

  2. pauldrye permalink*
    January 23, 2009 4:49 PM

    …and I even knew that too. A strong example of one’s fingers not typing what one’s brain was thinking. Noted and corrected, thank you!


  1. Ferdinandea, l'isola che non c'è | Lega NerdLega Nerd
  2. Quora

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