The last blog from the Geological Society Library & Archives outreach programme this festive season is an extract from the current exhibition, ‘The Three Month Isle’ (running December-March).
In the summer of 1831, a submerged volcanic island appeared in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Sicily. Although visible above the surface for only few months, during this time it managed to acquire no less than seven different names as well as claims of sovereignty from three different European nations including Britain.
The exhibition displays just a small selection of the contemporary accounts (under the various synonyms) reported by the naval officers and scientists who descended en masse to the area to witness the lifespan of this short-lived isle. Today’s blog is an extract from the report of a member of the crew of the first British Naval ship to reach the isle on 18 July 1831.
Report of Commander C. H. Swinburne, of his Majesty’s Ship Rapid, to Vice-Admiral the Hon. Sir Henry Hotham, K.C.B.
“Sir–I have the honour to inform you that on the 18th of July, 1831,at 4pm, the town of Marsala bearing by compass E. half N. 9 miles, I observed from on board his Majesty’s sloop, Rapid, under my command, a high irregular column of very white smoke or steam, bearing S. by E. I steered for it, and continued to do so till 8,15pm, when having gone about thirty miles by the reckoning, I saw flashes of brilliant light, mingled with the smoke which was still distinctly visible by the light of the moon.
In a few minutes the whole column became black and larger : almost immediately afterwards several successive eruptions of lurid fire rose up amidst the smoke : they subsided, and the column then became gradually white again. As we seemed to near it fast, I shortened sail, and hove to till daylight, that I might ascertain its nature and exact position. During the night the changes from white to black, with flashes and the eruptions of fire, continued at irregular intervals, varying from half an hour to an hour.
At daylight I again steered towards it, and about 5am, when the smoke had for a moment cleared away at the base, I saw a small hillock, of a dark colour, a few feet above the sea. This was soon hidden again, and was only visible through the smoke at the intervals between the more violent eruptions.
The volcano was in a constant state of activity and appeared to be discharging dust and stones with vast volumes of steam. At 7,30, the rushing noise of the eruptions was heard. At 9, being distant from it about two miles, and the water being much discoloured with dark objects at the surface in various places, I hove to, and went in a boat to sound round and examine it….The crater (for it was now evident that such was its form) seemed to be composed of fine cinders and mud of a dark brown colour ; within it was to be seen, in the intervals between the eruptions, a mixture of muddy water, steam, and cinders, dashing up and down, and occasionally running into the sea over the edge of the crater….
The island, or crater, appeared to be seventy or eighty yards in its external diameter, and the lip as thin as it could be, consistent with its height, which might be twenty feet above the sea in the highest, and six feet in the lowest part, leaving the rest for the diameter of the area within. These details could only be observed in the intervals between the great eruptions, some of which I observed from the boat. No words can describe their sublime grandeur …” From ‘Account of the volcanic island lately thrown up between Sicily and Pantellaria’, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, vol 1 (1832).
In the published account of Swinburne’s report, the island is referred to as ‘Graham’, however this name was not given until around two weeks later. In the first accounts, the isle is called ‘Corrao’ after Captain Corrao, the Italian commander of the schooner Thérésine who first observed its volcanic eruptions on 10th July 1831. When, on the 21st July 1831, the HMS Philomel arrived at the island, it was renamed ‘Hotham’ after the crew’s regional commanding officer, Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Hotham. The name was superseded by seniority when Captain Humphrey Senhouse, RN, managed to land on the island on the 3rd August 1831, and in planting the flag for Britain named it after Sir James Graham, First Lord of the Admiralty. The Italian geologist Carlo Gemmellaro reached the island on the morning of the 11th August 1831, officially naming the landmass ‘Isola di Ferdinando II’ after King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies whose first visit to Sicily coincided with its formation. When French geologist Louis Constant Prevost belatedly landed on the (now crumbling) island on 29 September 1831, he named it Julia’s Isle, after the month of its appearance. Other names included ‘Nerita’ after a nearby sandbank and ‘Sciacca’ after the nearest Sicilian town.
Charles Lyell described the island’s formation in detail in the third edition of ‘Principles of Geology’ (1834), wryly commenting on the confusion of names, “[T]his is an instance of wanton multiplication of synonyms which has scarcely ever been outdone even in the annals of zoology and botany.”
Library & archive online exhibitions
Previous posts from the exhibitions series:
- The fossils of Etheldred Bennett
- Account of a meteorite and mammoth from Russia
- M is for meteorite
- The Geological Society during the Second World War
- The Tectonics of the Cold War