Riding the wave

The Ferdinandea island

We did not know where to put the bizarre story of the missing island, i.e., the Ferdinandea island - or Graham Banks - to which Gaetano Allotta has dedicated a second study (the first published in November 2000) exhaustive and intriguing, which we summarize here: since "it isn't there" it did not seem to have a definite location in this site. For this reason we have allocated to it a separate chapter in our notes on Italian maps.

The issue of its being Italian was, indeed, questioned and periodically crops up, to the extent that other countries - should the island emerge again - might even make territorial claims.

In the web there are many sites that talk about it, some robustly in terms of claims, mainly on the basis of the (anachronistic) fact that at the time of its appearence, Italy was not a political entity. But let's proceed with order.

The title-page of the Descrizione dell'Isola Ferdinandea (From Allotta 2002)

On December 10, 1831 Benedetto Marzolla, an official of the Topographical Office of the Two Sicilies, published a Descrizione of the Ferdinandea island south of Sicily, indicating that on the previous 12 July, a volcano had emerged from the sea and, after several eruptions, had left an island. It was a small plain of black and heavy sand, so brittle that it could not support the weight of a person; in the center there stood a hill and nearby there was a pool of steaming water, strongly smelling of sulfur.

Its friability led Marzolla to believe that the island could soon disappear. In fact, at the date of publication of his report, the island had already disappeared - as was verified on 8th December by the commander of the brig "Achilles" - leaving a rock a few feet below the water surface.

Ships and scientists reached the site to observe the event, from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Switzerland, Germany, Great Britain. A report on the eruptive phenomenon was published by Carlo Gemmellaro, Professor of Natural History at the University of Catania, who made an inspection on August 11, 1831. Since King Ferdinand had recently visited Palermo, the scientist suggested that the island be named after him. As a result of a royal decree of 17 August, the King Ferdinand island was annexed to the Two Sicilies.

Eruption of the King Ferdinand island in a drawing by prof. Gemmellaro
(From Allotta 2002)
view of its west side,attached to the Gemmellaro report
(From Allotta 2002)

However, the previous August 10 the British cutter "Hind" had reached the island, where the Captain claimed to have planted the British flag, calling it Graham after the First Lord of the Admiralty. According to Benedetto Marzolla, the island had also been reached by the Austrian brick Hussars, which had left a plate, and by a French expedition that had also left a plaque with an inscription, calling the island Julia, because the phenomenon occurred in July. Prof. Gemmellaro expressed doubts as to the veracity of these events, both because of the fragility of the island, and because the eruption had in fact never ceased, presumably making landing impossible.

In the Atlante cartografico, storico e statistico del Regno delle Due Sicilie, published in 1832 at the Topographical Office, the island appears as Isola Ferdinandea. After its disappearance, a Bank of Graham appeared on later charts, both Italian and foreign, certainly on the example of the British charts, which shows that Italy had lost memory of the original Bourbon annexation.

The Bank of Graham in the survey of the Italian Hydrographic Institute, 1:10000, 1925.

The first surveys by the Italian Navy Hydrographic Institute date back to 1890, made on board the ship " Washington". However, in 1923 J.B. Charcot, the French captain of the "Pourquoi Pas?" on an oceanographic mission in the Tyrrhenian Sea, having failed to find the minimum depth shown on Italian charts, advanced the hypothesis of a change of the seabed, as a result of a new volcanic phenomenon.

Therefore, the hydro-oceanographic vessel " Admiral Magnaghi I" repeated the measurements and on July 13, 1925, confirmed the existence of the Bank, 37 ° 09'48",95 north lat., and 12° 43'06,85 E long. Its top covered an area of 30 square meters, with depths varying from 8 to 12 meters, and very irregular seabed, which fell considerably about 200 meters off the bank. That survey was published in Vol. 12 of the Annali Idrografici.

The interesting publication by G. Allotta proceeds with the reproduction of the Gemellaro report and of the Descrizione dell'Isola Ferdinandea by B. Marzolla, with excerpts of the Malta Government Gazette (July and August 1831) - which closely kept under observation the volcanic phenomenon in the wake of the British claims - and with additional documents that show a continuing general interest. Further reports are included regarding the Rischio geologico nel Canale di Sicilia ... (Prof. P. Colantoni), the Aspetti geologici dell'Isola Giulia (Dr. GP Francalanci). It even includes literary quotations by A. Dumas and A. Camilleri, and a wide press coverage, with an article in the Times (February 5, 2000), explicitly titled British isle Rises off Sicily coast. It ends with striking color photographs of the seabed aound the Bank and with an extensive bibliography.

The newspaper Sicily of Thursday, August 22, 2002, announced that the German TV on that same day made a report on the island of King Ferdinand.
The same newspaper reported that on November 11, 2002, Charles of Bourbon was present in Sciacca at a symbolic ceremony to reaffirm Sicily's ownership of the submerged islet.

The Italian Hydrographic institute in 1989 and 2002 renewed the survey of the seabed surrounding the island, which showed no changes in bathymetry.

The legal solution to hypothetical foreign claims is shown in the preface to the publication by prof. Tullio Scovazzi - Professor of International Law at the University of Milan-Bicocca - based on the principle of geographical contiguity of the Bank to other Italian islands; on art. 77 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Montego Bay, 1982), by which the sovereign rights of Italy on the area, which is part of the Italian continental shelf, are automatic and do not depend either from territorial occupation or from expressed proclamation; and on the Protocol on specially protected areas ... (Barcelona 1995), as a result of which Italy could establish a marine park in the area, inclusive of the seabed and its subsoil.

Dr. Gian Piero Francalanci.
Measurements effected on chart nr 18 of the Italian Hydrographic Institute of the Navy,
showing that the bank is within the limit of the contiguous zone,
that extends 12 miles beyond the territorial waters (from Allotta 2002).

The Ferdinandea island is also the pivot of a novel by Andrea Camilleri, Un filo di fumo, published by Sellerio.

Paola Presciuttini, 2002