The birth of an island


HMS 'Melville' off the Volcanic Graham Island, 1831. British School
HMS Melville off the Volcanic Graham Island, 1831. British School. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, via Wikimedia Commons

First-hand account from 1831 of an island being made between Tunisia and Italy, from Recollections of a Rifleman’s Wife, at Home and Abroad, by F. M. Fitzmaurice (1851) (PDF at Google books, computer-transliterated text at general ebooks; see also Wiki entry on its history and scientific significance): 


About ten days before we left Malta a new and extraordinary object of interest was occupying the attention of every one in the island. The brig Adelaide, on her passage from London to Malta, reported having seen, at one o’clock p. m., on the 18th of July, a column of white smoke, rising out of the water, at a distance of about fifteen miles. This, after a time, changed into columns of black smoke, intermixed with flame like lightning, the surrounding water greatly agitated; latitude, about 37° 10′ north; longitude, 12° 30′ east.

from Wikipedia
from Wikipedia

This account, which was confirmed by the report of other merchant vessels passing in the same direction, excited a great sensation among the Maltese, who looked upon it as the precursor of some calamity, while the more enlightened part of the population were desirous of ascertaining the exact nature and situation of the phenomenon, which was of the more importance, being in the direct track of vessels coming from the N.W., midway in the channel of Malta, between Pantelleria and Sicily; and the Philomel and Hind cutter were accordingly despatched to make observations. In the meantime H. M. brig Rapid, Captain Swinburne, on her way from Marseilles, had seen the new volcano, and brought many additional remarks, made by her intelligent commander and officers [see letter below]. Previous circumstances, frequently symptomatic of volcanic existence, had not been wanting, for on the eve of the 28th of June, when on the very spot where the island afterwards appeared, the Britannia and Rapid, in company, experienced the shock of an earthquake.

The Philomel and Hind shortly after returned, with accounts varying only from the former as to the increasing size of the island; and Admiral (then Captain) Nesham determined to take it on his homeward course, and thereby gave us an opportunity of witnessing the sublime spectacle of a volcano in full eruption, rising out of the hitherto unbroken current of the ocean. No words of mine could ever do justice to the wondrous grandeur of the sight; I shall, therefore, merely describe my own impressions at the time, in which, I believe, I shall be fully borne out by all who were there present, many of whom had been in all parts of the world, and said this far surpassed anything of the kind they had ever seen.

It was on the 5th of August, at 6.30 p.m., smoke was first visible to the many anxious eyes on board the Melville, at the supposed distance of about thirty miles. This, as we proceeded, became more apparent, rising to a considerable height above the horizon; at first, as it appeared, from three sources, but further observation showed it to be but from one, divided by the wind, for presently another column arose to windward, whose more rapid ascent showed it originated immediately from the volcano, and which, as it settled over the water in a tardy progress to leeward, assumed a thousand picturesque forms. Bright forked flames were seen to dart upwards, and a loud rambling noise was heard, compared by a young midshipman on board to the rattling of a chain cable when the anchor is let go.

At day-break the following morning I was awoke by a rap at my cabin-door, some one telling me that we were fast approaching the island, and that I had better make haste, as we should soon have passed it, if the wind continued in the same direction. I made a rapid toilette, and, putting on my bonnet and cloak, ran upon deck; and never shall I forget the sublime sight!  In the soft, warm, grey light of a Mediterranean morning, and from the bosom of a perfectly unruffled ocean, the new volcano was exhibiting its mighty operations. From the crater, which appeared in the form of a cone, jagged at the top, a fleecy vapour rose in globular clouds, which, expanding themselves majestically, assumed in their ascent the form of a towering plume—si parva licet compere magnis—that known as the illustrious decoration of the Prince of Wales. Large stones, carrying with them a quantity of black dust, were thrown up, and, as they rose and fell, broke into a thousand curious shapes; and the effect of this, through the white vapour, was magically beautiful. Flashes, like lightning, darted occasionally through the vapour, and noise, as of thunder, was distinctly heard. All this time the white smoke was extending itself, so as to cover the whole island, hanging together like that which issues from Vesuvius, and then ascending in an unbroken column for a much longer time than smoke generally does. The eruption appeared to be most violent at intervals of two hours, and at 11.30 one took place in some respects different from those I have attempted to describe. It began with a similar burst of white vapour, and similar projections of stones and dust; but immediately after the latter followed a copious mass of black lurid smoke, which, overpowering the white vapour, covered in its turn the whole island. The effect of this was less beautiful than the former, but more awful. At this time we were sufficiently near for the deck of the vessel to be covered with the black dust, which was thrown up in great quantities, and of which, as well as of some cinders, I have a specimen. It is harsh to the touch, and in colour resembles gunpowder. The latter were gathered in a curious way. The hides of some bullocks, which had been killed in the morning for the consumption of the ship, had been, as usual, fastened to the stern, to be purified by dragging through the water, and in them the cinders were entangled and brought up into the ship. The splash made by the stones which, during some of the eruptions, fell into the sea, at the estimated distance of about seventy feet from the island, was greater than that of a shot fired from an eighteen-pounder, and showed they must have been of considerable magnitude.

The wind was light, and the Melville made but little way. At one p.m., however, we passed the east comer of the island, when the immediate source of these eruptions was visible. Here was the mouth of the crater. On this side, the island, which in form resembled a horse-shoe, with the sides somewhat beaten out, did not rise above the level of the sea, but formed a bay, and from this ebbed a boiling, bubbling stream, leaving its own track in the sea for about three-quarters of a mile. Here it seemed as if a continual conflict was waged between the two elements of fire and water. The sea, rushing into the mouth of the crater, was opposed by the fire within, and, partly repelled, formed a whirling steamy Charybdis.

A volcano must always be an object of awe and admiration; but suddenly emerging from the sea, as this did, at the depth of 170 fathoms, it was indeed a sight never to be forgotten by those who had the good for tune to witness it. Every eye was on the island during that day; and to me the words of the Psalmist, in describing the majesty of Jehovah, were perpetually recurring. “The Lord sitteth upon the water-floods, and the Lord remaineth a king for ever.” “At the greatness of his power his clouds removed, hail-stones and clouds of fire.”

For six-and-thirty hours we were within sight or hearing of this grand phenomenon,  but it was between five and six p.m. that our excitement was at the highest. While we were at dinner, the commander; Captain Dyer, entered the cabin, and announced, with a look of some anxiety, that the little wind there was having died away, the ship appeared to be fast drifting into the strong current paused by the volcano. We were at this time within a mile of it, and a brig, which was in the offing, actually carried to Malta the report that we were engulphed. The captain, jumping up with a true sailor’s exclamation, ordered the boats to be lowered, that her head might be towed round. Every one rushed on deck to witness the manoeuvre; and as I passed into my own cabin at the moment it was performing, the length of the vessel as it were foreshortening the distance, it appeared as if the next heave must throw us on the fiery island. I have often wondered that I, who am “coward” enough “to die a thousand deaths,” under circumstances infinitely less alarming than this really was, did not feel at this moment a sensation of fear, except that it is said the mind cannot receive at the same time two great impressions, and wonder and admiration were then predominant in mind to the exclusion of every other.

Some officers on boards and my husband of the number, were very desirous to try a landing on the island; but Captain Nesham positively refused a boat for this service, and I think the general feeling was rather a nervous one, when we were near enough to be covered with the showers of black dust or pulverized cinders, and to feel our “good ship” shake to her very keel, from the subterranean thunder that issued from the volcano. But it was awfully magnificent, and long after it had gradually faded fipom our view, in the shades of night, our ears were on the qui vive for the sound of some fresh explosion. Still longer will the remembrance of that sight be vividly impressed on the minds of all who saw it; and though it is now some years since this subterranean wonder appeared, yet it is a subject that can hardly be devoid of interest at any time, to those who love to watch the wonderful works of God, displayed in the extraordinary, as well as daily routine of his great creation.

Whether we consider Graham’s Isle as an outbreak from the volcanic vein which has shown itself at intervals in the north of Italy, then southwards at Vesuvius, the Lipari Islands, Etna, and the north of Africa, where the remains of extinct volcanoes are to be seen; or as a sudden burst of fire, which appeared for a time like a meteor on the bosom of the ocean, and almost as suddenly disappeared, leaving no visible trace behind; it certainly may claim a place among the natural phenomena which have at different periods excited our wonder and admiration. Subsequent accounts from Malta mentioned, that the week after the sailing of the Melville, a party were sent out by Sir Henry Hotham (who then commanded in the Mediterranean) to make further observations on the volcano. All appearance of fire and smoke was gone, but a column of water rose to the height of several feet from the crater. They landed on the rock, planted the Union Jack, and named it “Graham’s Island,” after the first lord of the Admiralty. This was taken down a few days after, by some Neapolitans, who hoisted their own standard, calling it “Sciacca,” from the nearest town on the coast of Sicily; but the following week an end was put to the contest, by Neptune claiming it for his own; and a shoal under water, only a few feet below the surface, is all that now remains to mark the site of “Graham’s Island.”


Copy of a letter from Captain Swinburne to Sir H. Hotham.

” H. M. S. Rapid, August 20.

“Sir,—I have the honour to inform you, that in compliance with your order of the 18th of June last, I have examined the spot where the volcanic island appeared last summer. It has left a dangerous shoal, consisting of black sand and stones, with a circular patch of rock in the middle, about 42 yards in diameter, on which there are 2 fathoms of water, but in one spot only 9 feet. All round the rock there are from 2 1/2 to 3 fathoms, deepening gradually to 5 and 6 fathoms at the average distance of 100 yards from the centre; then more rapidly to 10, 20, and 30 fathoms. A small detached rock, with 15 feet on it, lies 130 yards S.W. of the central patch. About 3/8 of a mile N.W. of the centre, there is a detached bank with 23 fathoms on it. All the rock appears to be dark-coloured porous lava, and the sand, which is extremely fine in the deepest water, is composed of particles of the same substance; by this the soundings near the shoal may be distinguished. It should be approached with great caution, as a large extent of deep discoloured water, which lies to the S.W., may be mistaken for it, while the real danger is invisible till it is very near, being coposed of dark-coloured materials, and it is so deep that the lead cannot be trusted. Its latitude and longitude are  37° 9′ N., and 12° 43′ E. of Greenwich. In four days, during which the wind was constantly from N.W., currents were perceived from N.N.W. and N.E., the N.W. prevailing, and sometimes running three-quarters of a mile an hour. The temperature of the water on the shoal does not differ from that of the sea at a distance. I have moored, in three fathoms water, at the N.W. of the shoal, a cask, painted white, with a pole surmounted by a white ball, and at the S.E. a similar cask, painted black, bearing a black ball on the pole. These two buoys are about 120 yards apart.

” I have the honour to be, &c. &c.”

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