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An Island That is Just There for the Taking

This is just a personal view, but everything’s hopeless and we’re all going to die. We won’t just fade away either; tucked up and ancient in our warm little beds. It’s going to be a horrible, stifling apocalypse. If you feel like having a Lindt ball, honestly, go ahead. Inhale the whole box. Human beings are nasty, power-hungry animals intent on destruction. Not necessarily all of the time, but whenever they stand to lose anything. The Lindt balls are a good example. Eat mine and I’ll rip your bloody arms off.

I’ve believed this since Monday, when I read in The Age the story of Graham Island. The gist of the piece was that on this day in 1832, a potential three way war between Italy, France and Britain was averted when Graham Island sank off the coast of Sicily.

Graham Island raising its appealing little head

I was instantly grabbed by the island’s name. There are so few new Grahams coming off the production line (or Graemes for that matter) that the name has acquired a comic ring. Had Ian Island sunk nearby? Was Mervyn Attoll ever a part of the archipelago?

Then I read a bit more and realised that the story of Graham Island was far from funny. Rather, it is the story of our times, a metaphor for nationalism and the nation state, a parable on greed and power. For those who like adventure, there’s nautical conquests and scuba diving. For those who like igneous rocks, there’s a volcano made of olivine basalt.

This volcano is located in the Mediterranean, 26 nautical miles southwest of the Sicilian port of Sciacca. It was visible during the First Punic War, however most historians believe it didn’t last as long as the war, having slipped back underwater by 241 BC. It certainly missed the Second Punic War (218-202 BC) the Third Punic War (149-146 BC) and a smorgasbord of wars that followed.

Then in July 1831, amid bubbling seas and plumes of smoke, it suddenly reappeared. British vessels were drawn, a flag captain summoned, and by the time the volcano had grown to a 60 metre high, steaming smudge of basalt, it was dubbed Graham Island in honour of Sir James Graham, the first Lord of the British Admiralty (I know! I wanted it to be a real Graham too).

The British left, presumably to stick other flags in other lumps of basalt, leaving the Sicilians to sail out, toss away the Union Jack and raise the flag of King Ferdinand II, Bourbon King of the Two Sicilies. Now the island was called both Graham and Ferdinandea.

By the time the French arrived in September, the island was 4 kilometres in circumference, had two lakes and three owners. Again flags were shuffled and suddenly the rock was named Giulia, presumably because it appeared to sailors – sailors from other countries – in the month of July.

Now the wrangling over ownership was in full swing. Each nation denounced the treachery of the others. Even the Spanish, who hadn’t even turned up for the flag games, made a play for possession. Graham or Ferdinandea or Giulia was seen as a strategic jewel. Closer to Europe than Malta. A place to control sea traffic. A hillock which had not one but two lakes. With the smell of sulphur still burning in their nostrils, Sicilian nobles were planning a holiday resort.

Then, just as talk was of war, Graham Island sank. In January, the tectonic plates reasserted themselves, and the crater descended back below the surface. And there for over a century and a half it slumbered, just 15 metres down, an obstacle for navigators and fisherman. It was no longer a prize to be had. It was no longer something to war over.

It was still underwater when the Americans bombed Graham Island in 1987. A fighter pilot was on his way to bomb Libya, and mistook the seamount’s shadow for a Libyan submarine.

Then in February 2000, the tectonic plates moved again. Flushed with seismic speculation a British newspaper wrote an article entitled ‘A Long Vanished Piece of the British Empire is About to Resurface’. The feud was grinding to life again. Suddenly in Sciacca there were rumours that British naval ships were sniffing around their beloved Ferdinandea.

‘You’ll be wanting to call it Graham, I suppose’ Domenico Macaluso spat in an interview with the British newspaper The Independent. Macaluso is both a diver and a Cultural Inspector and headed the campaign to have the not yet visible island of Ferdinandea declared Italian.

In 2002, he conducted a dive mission to lay a 150-kg marble plaque inscribed with the words: ‘This piece of land, once Ferdinandea, was and shall always belong to the Sicilian people’. Weeks later the plaque was smashed into twelve pieces. Macaluso was appalled. ‘If it had been an anchor (that did it), it would have broken in two. It was deliberate.’

So that’s where we’re at. Graham Island rears up twice, fails to survive a war the first time, and almost starts one the second. Then as it considers another reappearance, it’s bombed by a plane that’s in transit on its way through to another war.

There could still be one last scramble for Graham Island. Because no country can show a continuous connection with the land, and because it is outside territorial waters, any self-interested nation state looking for a useless hunk of basalt can make a play. It could be Tunisia, it could be Libya, it could even be Australia (if we weren’t so committed to downsizing at the moment in the matter of islands). It’s just a matter of parking the dinghy and waiting for Graham to pop up.

And then we can takes it for ourselves … my Precious!