Graham Island: The rise and fall of an island

On June 28, 1831, a small 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 beaches.

On July 10, Giovanni Corrao, captain of the Neapolitan brigantine 'Teresina', was sailing in the Mediterranean when he saw a huge column of water and smoke that roared up to 20 meters above sea level. “A great noise like thunder” was also heard.
Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies, ordered the warship 'Etna' to investigate. News also reached Malta, then under British rule. 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.”

By July 19, 1831, some 30 kilometers south of Sicily, a new island could be seen — spawned by an eruption of the underwater volcano Empedocles. Charles Swinburne, commander of the British sloop 'Rapid', saw a high, irregular column of very white smoke or steam. 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 65 meters high and had a circumference of about 3.5 kilometers.

Captain Humphrey Le Fleming Senhouse, landed on the island on August 2 and planted the British Union Jack. He named the island Graham Island, in honor of Sir James Graham, first lord of the Admiralty. Italy, not to be outdone, sent Carlo Gemellaro, professor of natural history, to the island. He named it Ferdinandea, after Ferdinand II. Unimpressed by the news of the flag already flying over it, Ferdinand formally declared the island to be part of his kingdom, even though it lay outside the territorial waters of Sicily.

As always, the French were last to arrive: 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. A potential conflict between England, Italy and France was born.
But as quickly as it had appeared, Graham Island also disappeared. By December the island had collapsed and was reduced to a hazardous reef a few feet below sea level. Studies later revealed that the entire island had been composed of a volcanic rock called tephra, known for its susceptibility to erosion.

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