The island that disappeared – the fascinating story behind our specimens from Graham Island | Curator of Petrology

The NHM petrology collection holds more than 126,000 specimens of geological and historical importance. We take a look at some historically important volcanic rocks that illustrate the story of a diplomatic fight over an island that disappeared.

Volcanic specimens from Graham Island held in the NHM Petrology collection

Read on to find out more in this post by our Sicilian Petrology Curator Epi Vaccaro about how the island formed, why it disappeared and the international dispute that it caused.

Where it was and why did it appear?

Graham Island known in Italian as Isola Ferdinandea was a volcanic island that appeared during a submarine volcanic eruption in July 1831 in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Sicily.

Thanks to geological studies carried out in the area, it is now known that Graham Island or Isola Ferdinandea was part of the underwater volcano Empedocles, 30 km (19 mi) south of Sicily.


Geographic position of Graham Island

 The International dispute

A four-way international dispute over its sovereignty began when it last rose above sea level during the eruption that took place in July 1831.

The monarch of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, claimed sovereignty of the island, which he named after the King Ferdinand II, hence Isola Ferdinandea.

The French Navy named the island Île Julia since it appeared in July. French geologist Constant Prévost made a landing, with an artist who created a painting of the eruption.

On 1st August 1831, Royal Navy Captain Humphrey Fleming Senhouse claimed the Island for the British Crown. He planted the union Jack and named it after Sir James Graham, the First Lord of the Admiralty.

Dramatic page from the field notebook of Constant Prévost and HMS Melville in front of Graham Island.

Its very strategic position right in the middle of the Mediterranean trade route, made the island very desirable so Spain also declared its territorial ambitions.

The disappearance

Geological processes were poorly understood at the time so there was speculation that a chain of islands would emerge connecting Sicily to Tunisia. This would have caused further friction to the geopolitics of the region.

Whilst Europe argued over this “bone of contention” the newly formed Island made of unconsolidated and fragile material, was washed away by the unrelenting waves of the Mediterranean Sea.

The dispute remains?

The underwater volcano Empedocles, which gave birth to the ephemeral Graham Island or Isola Ferdinandea, showed signs of volcanic activity in 2000 and 2002. On the 5th February 2000, The Times published a short article with the headline “British Isle rises off Sicily Coast”, considered provocative by many, which did re-ignite the dispute about the island that disappeared. However, as of 2016 the volcano remains 6m (20 ft) below sea level.


Samples from the 1831 eruption present in The NHM collection


The samples we have in our collection are unique as they cannot be collected again. In a future blog I’ll provide more details about the specimens, the massive underwater volcano Empedocles and the type of volcanic eruption that produced it.

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