Copyright © The Malta Historical Society, 2010.



Albert Ganado[*]

One of the rare pamphlets published in Malta at the Government Press in 1834, before the advent of the freedom of the press, was born through the sudden appearance of a volcanic island in the Central Mediterranean.[1]

It was in July of 1831 that several Neapolitan vessels witnessed the magnificent sight of a volcanic eruption arising above the blue sea from the depths of the Mediterranean seabed.

On 28 June 1831, the ship of the line Britannia and the brig Rapid, traversing the waters between Cape Bon and the south-western coast of Sicily, were both greatly affected by a shock, as if from an earthquake.[2] Boiling waters and [p.342] a quantity of dead fish were noticed on 8 July by the master and crew of the Neapolitan vessel named Sant’Antonio. On 9 July, those aboard La Concezione observed the same scene and felt earthquake shocks.

On the eve of 10 July, the crew of another Neapolitan vessel, Lo Spartano, while off Sciacca, were struck by an extraordinary spectacle. Every moment they witnessed ‘columns of fire arise from the sea, which displayed various hues, at times obscure, at times red, and at times dark and purple. Shocks were sensibly felt, light at the commencement, but generally becoming stronger and more frequent’. A shower of volcanic effluvia fell all around, some of which was picked up and found to be of a fawn or dirty yellow colour. Within hours, the fire disappeared and the sea became calm.

A Florentine passenger on board a Tuscan vessel, called Il Veliero, described what he saw on 11 July. He stated that they were at some distance from Sciacca when various phenomena occupied all their attention, namely, fish leaping out and remaining alive on the surface of the sea and lightning emerging from the sea, followed by continual detonations. On 12 July, severe rumblings and ‘globes of smoke from time to time rising from the sea, and exploding in the atmosphere’ were heard and seen, also in the following days, while the column of fire was seen once more breaking the waves and subsiding. [3]

On the eve of 13 July, there were felt on the coast of Sicily, opposite the volcano, strong shocks of earthquakes. The inhabitants were even more terrified when they saw a column of fire which appeared to fall from the clouds precipitately into the sea, with the waves appearing to be in flames. However, quite unexpectedly, at about 1a.m. on 13 July, the whole atmosphere and sea became serene and tranquil as before. But not for long.

At 11.34 a.m., a complete eruption came about, with smoke or steam arising from the sea in three distinct columns. The fire then rose up perpendicularly to the height of the topmast head of a first-rate man-of-war. From then on, the volcano was in a constant state of activity and a crater was formed on the surface of the water.[4]

It was only on 20 July that the Malta Government Gazette gave the first news of the volcano, based on reports made by Prospero Schiaffino, master of the Sardinian bombard Sant’Anna, and Mario Provenzano of the Neapolitan bombard Madonna delle Grazie. They had both witnessed the same phenomenon on 13 July and they remained in the vicinity of the volcano for three whole days.

On learning this intelligence, Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Hotham, the newlyappointed Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, despatched the tender of the flagship, the Hind cutter, commanded by Lieutenant Coleman, to verify these reports. Upon receiving a further account from Emmanuele Rossignaud, master


A chart (14.7x20cm) showing the position of the Island of Fernandea (encircled),
printed by C. Hullmandel and published in G. W. Smythe's description of the island (London, 1832?).

of the brig Adelaide, which arrived from London on 19 July, the Vice-Admiral immediately sent Captain William Smith of HM brig Philomel, with the masters of HMS St. Vincent and HMS Ganges, to determine the exact position of the volcanic island on the charts and explain the nature of the phenomenon.[5]

An extremely rare lithograph in colour was published in London by Ackermann after a drawing made in situ by a member of the crew of HMS St. Vincent, the flagship of the Vice-Admiral.[6]

The first report of the island’s appearance on 10 July seems to have been made by Captain Corrao of the schooner Teresina. He calculated that the column of water rose perpendicularly to the height of 50 or 60 feet, having a circumference of 400 fathoms. After the initial alarm and fear had subsided, the Sicilians were

[p.344] highly excited by this phenomenon within sight of their shores.[7] Consequently, when the island was formed, His Majesty Ferdinand II, King of the Two Sicilies, sent a ship of the line to name it Isola Ferdinandea.[8] However, the British were not to be outdone. On 22 July 1831, Captain C. H. Swinburne of HM sloop Rapid sent a detailed report to Vice-Admiral Hotham.

News of this new acquisition for the British Empire was published in the Malta Government Gazette of 10 August 1831. It was announced that Captain Senhouse had submitted a fresh report to the Vice-Admiral after visiting the volcano in the Hind cutter. He wrote that the eruption continued in activity, by which the crater was so much increased as to be in its highest part 200 feet above the level of the sea. It was of a circular shape, from a mile and a quarter to a mile and a third in circumference. He landed on the island on 2 August and found it firm and compact.[10] It was formed of loam lava and puzzolana, or rather of the latter, with lumps of the former in some places. Within the crater there was boiling water. The lip of the crater at the lowest part was 30 feet high, in other places 80 feet, in the centre 200 feet. That is where he hoisted the British union flag, and named the volcano ‘Graham Island’, in honour of Sir James Graham, the First Lord of the Admiralty. He confirmed that the coordinates given by Captain William Smyth were correct, namely, latitude 37 deg. 11 min. North, and longitude 12 deg. 44 min. East.[11] The Government informed the Secretary of State for the Colonies of this event by a despatch of 28 July and a postscript dated 4 August 1831.[12]

When the Malta Government Gazette reached the Neapolitan Court, His Sicilian Majesty, through the Prince of Cassaro, registered a vehement protest to the British representative in Naples, Mr. Hill. It was stated that His Majesty could have never imagined that someone would have been despatched from Malta to plant the flag of His Britannic Majesty on an island formed by nature so close to his domains. He therefore called upon the government of Malta to explain its action and to desist therefrom. The protest was dated 30 August 1831, and it was sent to the Governor, Sir Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, on 2 September, who presumably passed it on to the Vice-Admiral.[13]

Meanwhile ‘the patriotic Sicilians’ embarked from the neighbouring port of Sciacca, only 25 miles away from the island, which they retook and placed the flag of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies instead of the British ensign. Even the


Six different views of the volcanic island published in Descrizione dell' Isola Ferdinandea by Benedetto Marzolla.

[p.346] French took an interest in the island naming it Julia, although some say Ephoestia. Other names proposed for the island over the years were Sciacca, Nerita (some 50 kilometres from Sciacca), Corrao, Hotham and Proserpina. It has been remarked that this was ‘a wanton multiplication of synonyms which has scarcely ever been outdone even in the annals of zoology and botany’.[14]

What seems to be the very first separate publication about the volcanic island was issued in Naples in late 1831, written by Benedetto Marzolla, Impiegato nel Reale Officio Topografico.[15] He wrote that, on 27 October 1831, an English surveyor went to the island on board the steamship Francesco I. He took back with him to Naples a map and views of the volcanic phenomenon which he passed on to Marzolla with all the relevant details. Indeed Marzolla’s oblong pamphlet consists of four pages of text and seven plates, one of which shows the island with a scale bar of cinquecento palmi.

The new island excited interest in all those navigating the water between Sicily and Tunisia. Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) made his passage to Malta in November 1831 on board HMS Barham (Capt. Hugh Pigot) and, when they reached the island, Scott went out in one of the ship’s boats to survey it and he was carried to the top on the back of one of the seamen. As Donald Sultana wrote in his account of Scott’s journey to Malta, the volcano was still active near the bay where they landed, its centre bubbling perpetually and throwing up steam. Dolphins were lying dead on the beach and birds were suffocated with the sulphurous air. Scott collected from the island specimens of volcanic earth, shells and other material. When he reached Malta, he sent to the Royal Society of Edinburgh a sketch of the volcano, with notes, drawn by a clerk of Captain Pigot.[16] Other sketches, drawn by Major Irton of the Royal Engineers for Dr John Davy, were sent to the Royal Society in London and they were published in its Proceedings of August 1832.[17]

In order to avert the escalation of a grave diplomatic incident, the volcano decided to behave nicely and it started subsiding, but not before Surgeon A. Osborne of HMS Ganges had made some scientific observations dated 20 August 1831.[18] He wrote that, from the nature of the island, there being no bond


A picture of HMS Barham on her passage to the Mediterranean with Sir Walter Scott,
drawn by James Kenneth Willson, lithographed in Malta by Charles de Brocktorff in 1832, one of a set of five.
© Albert Ganado Collection.

of coherence in its heterogeneous particles, and from the precipitous falling down of its sides by the action of the sea, he was inclined to think that there was not the stability of permanence in its composition. The concerted action of the ocean, the winds, and the rain, would dissolve the volcano, and the crumbling ruin would gradually sink and extend its base to a bank barely above the level of the sea.

Throughout its existence, it was a splendid sight to see ships of various nations arriving in numbers to view the interesting spectacle, and ships of war from Naples, France and Sardinia arrived to examine this unusual phenomenon.

As predicted, in September the island began to diminish, both in circumference and in height. It was visited on 7 November by His Majesty’s Steamer Alban, whose commander, Lieutenant Walker, reported that as from 25 September it had diminished from about a mile and a quarter to little more than a quarter of a mile in circumference and the only part visible at any distance was a small cliff about seventy feet high.[19] By December, it had disappeared completely, leaving [p.348] in the same place a dangerous shoal, of an oval figure, about three-fifths of a mile in extent. The upper surface was composed principally of black stones and some of a darkish yellow, exactly like those that had been observed around the crater of the volcano, with a sprinkling of sand here and there. Neither the barrel placed there by Captain Swinburne in 1832, nor the discoloured water observed by him to the south-west, were to be seen. In December 1837, a survey was carried out by an officer of the flagship Princess Charlotte.[20]

Some days previous to the disappearance of the island, a paragraph was inserted in the government gazette of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies announcing that ‘the name of Ferdinandea or Fernandea had been conferred on the new Member of the great volcanic family in honour of the Monarch of Etna and Vesuvius’. On the other hand, there was no official notification of the names Hotham island or Graham island (bestowed by British officers). It followed that the authenticated name of the island was that conferred by Naples.[21] There were some who said that the Sicilians had an explanation for the rapid disappearance of the island. It went under so quickly because ‘it was in a hurry to escape the claim to it made by the English’.[22]

Apart from the notices in the Malta Government Gazette, the pamphlet mentioned in the first paragraph of this paper was published by a Sienese living in Malta, Giuseppe Pericciuoli Borzesi, who had published in 1830 and again in 1832 a ‘historical guide’ of the Maltese islands.[23] The pamphlet consists of 32 pages and it contains a map in lithography entitled Situation of Graham Island, signed ‘L. de Brocktorff’, measuring 125 x 195mm. The signature denotes Luigi Brocktorff (1814-1857), member of a family of lithographers, the eldest son of Charles Frederick de Brocktorff (1785?-1850). The coordinates of the volcano are those established by Captain (later Admiral) William Smyth, who was possibly the author of the map. He was an expert cartographer who had published in 1822 and 1823 The hydrography of Sicily, Malta, and the adjacent islands surveyed in 1814, 1815, and 1816.

Contemporary French authors recorded details which are not to be found in the British accounts. Monsieur D-D. Farjasse wrote that the volcano was first sighted by the Sicilian brig Il Gustavo on 8 July 1831. It was sighted by Captain Saby de Mendiol on 8 August and Monsieur Hoffmann wrote an interesting article in


The title page of a narrative of the eruption in 1831 of Graham Island off Sciacca in southwestern Sicily, written by Giuseppe Pericciuoli Borzesi, published in Malta in 1834.
© Albert Ganado Collection.

Map showing the situation of Graham Island between Pantelleria and Sicily lithographed by Luigi de Brocktorff, published in 1834 in Pericciuoli Borzesi's narrative.
© Albert Ganado Collection.


Detail from a map of the Italian Kingdom and Malta on which the volcanic island is named Nerita (encircled). Published in a school atlas by Ad. Stieler in Vienna in 1875.

German newspapers after his visit to the island. Monsieur de Humboldt, on the other hand, gave an account of the volcano to the Paris Academy of Sciences, in which he stated that the volcano was initially thought to have erupted on the Nerita Bank, south-west of Sicily, clearly shown in 1822 and 1823 by Captain W. Smith in his Chart of the Southern Coast of Sicily. That is how the volcanic island acquired the name Nerita in the first instance. Among the Frenchmen who explored the island, mention is made of the geologist Constant Prévost, who went to the island at the end of September on board the brig La Fléche and who predicted its imminent disappearance, Captain Lapierre, master of the brig, and Monsieur Groulerdy. They were accompanied by Monsieur Joinville, the official painter of the expedition. Captain Lapierre established that the eruption did not take place on the Nerita Bank and so Monsier Derussat named it Julia as the event took place in July.[24]

Yet the tradition of Nerita Bank survived for several decades.The volcano is shown as Nerita on a map of Italy and its islands published in a school atlas entitled Ad. Stieler’s Schul-Atlas über alle Theile der Erde und über das Weltgebäude, issued


Lithograph titled Volcanic Island issued from C. Motte's Lithography in St. Martin's Lane, London, after an original sketch by M. W. Russell of HMS St. Vincent, published by J. Dickinson in 1831.
© Albert Ganado Collection

[p.352] in Vienna in 1875.[25] For the Italians, however, the volcano became widely known as Isola Ferdinandea, or similar, as ordered by the King of the Two Sicilies. The present author has a large map of 1837 published in Milan entitled Carta statistica e postale dell’Italia di S. Stucchi which labels the volcano I. Ferdinanda Vulcano intermit[tente]. It was given the same name in Samuel Butler’s Atlas of modern geography (1838) and in a map of Sicily published in Milan by Francesco Pagnoni, at about 1860, which has the same wording as the 1837 map.[26]

The most prestigious contemporary publication was the illustrated narrative by George Walter Smythe, a cavalry officer in the service of H.M. the King of Sardinia, published in London by Joseph Booker.[27] It is undated, but the dedication to William IV of England places the book before June 1837 when His Majesty passed away. The illustrations include the following:

1. Chart, Shewing the Position of The New Volcanic Island of Fernandea;
2. Views of the new volcanic island of Fernandea during the interval between the Eruptions as seen on the 6th August, 1831;
3. The volcanic island of Fernandea. Which has recently appeared off the Coast of Sicily, as seen on the 6th of August 1831;
4. (Same title as no. 3 but a different view of the eruption);
5. The volcanic island of Fernandea bearing N. W. As seen 4 miles distant August 6th 1831.

These lithographs were printed by C. Hullmandel. The second one was ‘Drawn on Stone by H.R……, while the other three were drawn by Prosser, all from original sketches made on the spot ‘by G.W. Smythe Esq.r’.[28]

The volcano went to rest in 1833, but not for ever. Towards the middle of March 1840, a column of smoke was noticed by the crew of the English schooner Venilia which arrived in Malta from Liverpool on 20 March. HMS Hydra was immediately sent to investigate and it found that the volcano’s slight eruption had sunk the shoal deeper into the water.[29] However, in April 1851 soundings taken by HM steam sloop Scourge (Cdr. Lord Frederick Kerr) reported that these showed ‘a great decrease of the water on the shoal, and consequent danger to vessels passing in that direction’. The Malta Chamber of Commerce was to


Brocktorff's lithograph plan (17x12 cm) of Graham's Shoal drawn by Cdr. Lord Frederick Kerr in 1851 and published in the Supplement to the Malta Mail on 19 April 1851.

be advised of this danger.[30] The Supplement to The Malta Mail dated 19 April 1851 published the Kerr report together with the plans of the shoals, with the latitude and longitude marked in each respectively. The plans of Graham’s Shoal,

[p.354] Ramsay’s Bank, and the Shoal on Adventure Bank with all the soundings taken, were lithographed by the Brocktorffs of 111 Strada Reale, Valletta, ‘expressly for the Malta Mail’ and published in the said Supplement. The original plans are extant in Malta.[31] In 1863, the island reappeared again for a few hours on the surface of the waves without giving anyone the chance to take possession.[32]

Quite recently, the volcano started once more hitting the headlines, but without any concrete result. In April 1951,[33] some fishermen reported that ‘the island of Ferdinandea had reappeared’, while on 25 November 2002[34] the island started to bubble to the surface, following geological activity at Mount Etna precisely when a romantic comedy film set on Ferdinandea was being produced.

What lies in store for the future? Will it ever come to life again? If it does, will it give rise once more to a diplomatic incident between Italy and Great Britain? Rather unlikely. Times have changed. But it is quite possible that some Arab state might come into the picture if the island were to surface once more, in spite of the fact that, in September 2001, Prince Charles of Bourbon and his wife sent frogmen to plant a tablet notifying that the claim of ownership made in 1831 by the House of Bourbon had passed to the State of Italy.[35][**]

[*] Dr Albert Ganado BA, LL.D, a practising lawyer since 1947, has published extensively in academic journals studies on various aspects of Maltese history, including art, legislation, politics and philately and has been contributor to Enyclopaedia Brittanica since 1954 on Maltese history and current events. He has contributed over forty papers on the cartography of Malta in prestigious journals published in Malta, London, Rome, Leipzig, Vienna and Brussels and has actively participated with papers on cartography in international conferences held at Malta, Mainz, Pisa, Bertinoro and Brussels. Co-author of Malta in British and French Caricature 1798-1815 (1989), A Study in depth of 143 maps representing the Great Siege of Malta of 1565 (1994-5) in 2 volumes; consultant editor for Palace of the Grand Masters in Valletta (2001); author of Valletta Citta’ Nuova – A Map History (1566-1600) (2003), Malta in World War II – Contemporary Watercolours (1940-1942) by Alfred Gerada (2005), Miniature Maps of Malta (2009), and Matteo Perez d’Aleccio’s Engravings of the Siege of Malta of 1565 (Florence 2009). Dr Ganado is a keen collector of Melitensia in all its various aspects and is: former President of the MHS and the Malta Bridge Association; former Vice-President of the Maltese Assn. SMOM; is Chairman of the Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee of MEPA and member of the Board of Directors of Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti and its editorial board; past Chairman of the National Archives Advisory Committee; President and founder (in 2009) of The Malta Map Society; Knight of Magistral Grace SMOM by whom he was awarded the Croce di Commendatore al Merito Melitense; Commendatore nell’Ordine dei Santi Maurizio e Lazzaro; and a Member of the Maltese Order of Merit. To honour him, the Malta University Library produced a Festschrift in 1994 – Liber Amicorum Dr Albert Ganado. In 2008, Heritage Malta acquired from him his unique collection of 450 different maps of Malta, named The Albert Ganado Malta Map Collection.

[1] [G. Pericciuoli Borzesi], Narrative of the volcanic eruption, or Graham Island, which appeared in the Mediterranean, off Sicily, between Sciacca, and the Island of Pantallaria, in the summer of 1831, Malta 1834. 2 Report of Commander C.H. Swinburne, of HMS Rapid to Vice-Admiral the Hon. Sir Henry Hotham, KCB, dated 22 July 1831; cf. Malta Government Gazette (MGG), 27 July 1831, no. 1069, 228-9. Sir Henry Hotham (1777-1833) was Commander-in-Chief of the British naval forces in the Mediterranean between 1831 and 19 April 1833; cf. A. Ganado, “Hotham’s monument at Upper Barracca: plural paternity problems”, The Sunday Times (of Malta), 9 February 1986, 22.

[2] Report of Commander C.H. Swinburne, of HMS Rapid to Vice-Admiral the Hon. Sir Henry Hotham, KCB, dated 22 July 1831; cf. Malta Government Gazette (MGG), 27 July 1831, no. 1069, 228-9. Sir Henry Hotham (1777-1833) was Commander-in-Chief of the British naval forces in the Mediterranean between 1831 and 19 April 1833; cf. A. Ganado, “Hotham’s monument at Upper Barracca: plural paternity problems”, The Sunday Times (of Malta), 9 February 1986, 22.

[3]3 Pericciuoli Borzesi, 7-11.

[4]4 Ibid., 13. See also MGG, 27 July 1831, 227.

[5]MGG, 20 July 1831, no. 1068, 200.

[6]Catalogo Libreria Sforzini, Via della Vite, 43, Roma, item 191, published in 1977.

[7]G.W. Smythe, Views and description of the late volcanic island off the coast of Sicily, London [1832?], 2, 5. His monograph includes two plates of the Geyser in Iceland (1789).

[8]Letter dated 30 August 1831 mentioned infra in the text.

[9] Cf. footnote 2 above. 10

[10]MGG, 10 August 1831, no. 1071, 243.

[11]MGG, 24 August 1831, no. 1073, 254.

[12]National Archives of Malta (NAM), Despatches Governor to Secretary of State, vol. 3, January 1829- February 1834.

[13]NAM, CSG 03.172 and 172.1.

[14]C. Lyell, Principles of Geology, II, Ch. V, London (?) 1835.The name Ephoestia is mentioned by Pericciuoli Borzesi.

[15]B. Marzolla, Descrizione dell’Isola Ferdinandea al mezzo-giorno della Sicilia. [Naples, 1831]. The description is dated 10 December 1831. This rare publication was brought to the author’s attention by Dottor Maurizio di Paola whose profusely illustrated book Castel Sant’Angelo nelle sue stampe was launched a couple of years ago at the Italian Cultural Institute at Valletta.

[16]D. Sultana, The Journey of Sir Walter Scott to Malta, New York 1986, 49-50, 61, 123-4, 155 fn. 88. The sketch of the island is illustrated on page 140 as Appendix III.

[17]Idem, The Journey of William Frere to Malta in 1832, Malta [1988], 141-2. Major Irton’s drawings are illustrated on page 140 of the book.

[18]Osborne’s report was published in the MGG, Suppl. to no. 1073, 25 August 1831, 265-6.

[19]MGG, 16 November 1831, no. 1085, 356.

[20]20 MGG, 2 October 1833, no. 1184, 321-2; 21 February 1838, no. 1420, 70.

[21]Smythe, 14

[22]J. Guest, Volcanoes of Southern Italy (Google Books). This book records that, at the site of Graham Island, there were reports of eruptions in 1632 and possibly 1701, and further submarine eruptions in 1863 and 1999. It also mentions two sketches of the island, one made on 7 August 1831 by Captain Wodehouse RN, showing cliffs formed by erosion of the soft fresh tephra, the other by a member of a French scientific team showing more extensive erosion and the still steaming crater: source from Lyell, fn. 14 supra.

[23]On this guidebook see A. Ganado, ‘Bibliographical Notes on Melitensia – 2’, Melita Historica, XIV, 1, 2004, 67-93.

[24]D-D Farjasse, “Sicile et Malte”, in L’Italie, la Sicile… l’Ile de Calypso, etc., recueillis et publiés par Audot père, Paris 1835, 321-2. The first Italian edition, con aggiunte e correzioni, was published in Turin in 1835. One of the additions states that it was the name Ferdinandea which prevailed among the geographers, and it was this name that survived after the disappearance of the volcano (p. 329).

[25]This information was kindly supplied by courtesy of the Vienna National Library, letter signed by Irene Javorsky, dated 8 November 2007.

[26]For the Pagnoni map see L. Dufour – A. La Gumina, Imago Siciliae, Cartografia storica della Sicilia 1420-1860, Catania 1998, 279.

[27]See fn. 7 above.

[28]The author has another lithograph entitled VOLCANIC ISLAND, 185 x 148mm, which is very scarce. It was lithographed by C. Motte of St. Martin’s Lane after an original sketch by M.W. Russell of HMS St. Vincent made on 1 August 1831, published by J. Dickinson of New Bond Street. It is being reproduced with this article. It has on the verso a manuscript description of the island as seen by an eyewitness on 21 July 1831.

[29]Il Portafoglio Maltese, no. 100, 30 March 1840, 833; no. 101, 6 April 1840, 841.

[30]The Malta Mail and United Service Journal, 17 April 1851, 3, and 24 April 1851, 4.

[31]NAM, CSG03/781.1.

[32]E. Le Danois, “Esquisse Géologique, Topographique et Océangraphique”, Grigore Antipa – Hommage à son oeuvre, Bucharest 1938, 311-2.

[33]The Times of Malta, 21 April 1951.

[34]The Times (of Malta), 5 December 2002, 16.

[35]Il Tempo, 28 November 2002.

[**]Note – In past years some Maltese writers had taken note of the sensational story of 1831. Reference may be made to these articles: J. Galea, “A freak island in the Mediterranean”, The Sunday Times of Malta, 2 April 1972, 10; R. Attard, “A story – Volcano”, The Malta Independent on Sunday, 2 July 2000, 14; J.C. Camilleri, “Graham Island in the Mediterranean”, The Malta Year Book 2002, 530-1.