Saturday, 12 February 2011

I'll be gone by Christmas

Being at a loose end last night I spent a happy half-hour glancing through the 1899 edition of The Times Atlas of the World. It's a big book, not something you can conveniently curl up in an armchair with, and whatever dilapidated state it may once have been in, it has now been handsomely restored by a friend with a great gift for bookbinding. It's a privilege to have it on our bookshelves.

I arrived at the Western Mediterranean page. I have a deep Platonic love for Mediterranean islands, Platonic in the sense that apart from Sicily I've never got inside any of them, so to speak, except in my mind or through the pages of others, which is sometimes the best form of travel, especially when curled up in an armchair beside the fire on a winter's night. All the same there are several I would dearly love to visit in the flesh, Crete, Lampedusa, the Aegadian Islands, Stromboli, several in the Aegean and finally, at the end my travellings, like Odysseus, Ithaca.

There's one Mediterranean island I shall never get to, though. I was very surprised to discover on page 44 of this 112-year-old atlas, lying conveniently between south-western Sicily and Tunisia, an island called Ferdinandea. Beside it was marked 'July-December 1831'. I'd never heard of it. What was this?

As so often Uncle Wiki came to the rescue. In 1831 the inhabitants of a Sicilian coastal town called Sciacca (where J. and I once stayed in a hotel full of very fat Germans taking the cure; our comparative leanness seemed out-of-place and ill-mannered, as though we'd gone there deliberately to taunt) assumed the smoke on the horizon was a burning ship. Vessels were sent to investigate. They discovered lava from an undersea volcano breaking the surface, spreading and solidifying into quite a reasonable little twin-peaked island.

It didn't take long for the Royal Navy to appear on the scene and for a party of bluejackets to plant the Union Flag in the volcanic detritus, claiming the island for Great Britain in the name of William IV (who 'appeared' here the other day). They called it Graham Island, after Sir James Graham, First Lord of the Admiralty. The then Italian kingdom of The Two Sicilies also claimed it, calling it Ferdinandea after the Neapolitan King Ferdinand II. So did the French, who called it Julia. Spain also cast envious eyes on it. Diplomatic wrangling over ownership went on for some months. Ownership was settled when Ferdinandea/Graham/Julia cocked a snook - to use a Thackerayesque expression of the times - at the whole lot of them by completely disappearing beneath the waves five months later, at about Christmas time.

Apparently it's still there, a few metres below the surface. It last made the headlines in the 1980s, when USAAF bombers attacked Libya in a stand-off with Col. Ghaddafi. Assuming the radar-defined shape just below the surface to be a Libyan submarine, depth charges were dropped on the sunken Ferdinandea. We're not told what damage was done, but as King Ferdinand had through his fondness for punitive explosives earned himself the nickname 'Bomba' no doubt he would have been hugely gratified.

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