Will Malta lay claim to the volcanic island expected to emerge out of the waters off its west coast in the coming days?

The island, known to the British as Graham Island, to the Italians as Ferdinandea and to the French as Julia, has been submerged since January 1832.

It last emerged above sea level in July, 1831, between Pantelleria and Sciacca and had then been claimed by Sicily, the UK and France.

Observers at the time wondered if a chain of mountains would spring up, linking Sicily to Tunisia and thus upsetting the geopolitics of the region.

Geologists studying the seabed near Sicily say there are signs that the island is expected to resurface again in the coming weeks.

The island was sighted in the Sicilian Channel on July 13, 1831, amid huge clouds of smoke and lava flows from a crack in the sea bottom.

Quick to capitalise on its strategic importance, Britain had despatched HMS Rapid from Malta, and a British naval party planted a British flag on the summit despite the "nauseous gas". They named the island Graham, after Sir James Graham, the first lord of the admiralty.

The English had a particular liking for the new island that was en route to Malta, then a British colony, the Grifasi - Almanacco Siciliano said, quoting from a Maltese newspaper of August 10, 1831.

But the government of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies dispatched the corvette Etna to take down the British flag, claim the new land and dub it Ferdinandea in honour of King Ferdinand II, the Bourbon King of Naples and Sicily until 1859.

Soon afterwards the French turned up: represented by geologist Constant Prevost and Eduard Joinville, a painter. Bearing the flag of France, they named the island Julia, because it was 'born' in July.

The eruptive phenomena were intense between July 18 and 24, slowing down until they were extinguished at the beginning of August, when the island had reached its maximum development - a circumference of 4,800 metres and a height of 63 metres.

The island's size gradually decreased to 700 metres. By January of the following year, it had disappeared.

First recorded in 10BC, the submerged island last featured in an international dispute in 1987, when a US warplane patrolling the area during a confrontation with Libya mistook its submerged tip for a Libyan submarine and dropped depth charges on it.

Federico Eichberg, an international relations expert based in Rome, believes that should Ferdinandea reappear, it would do so within Italian territorial waters and in all probability be formally claimed by Italy.

The tip of the island is currently around eight metres beneath the surface, forming a shoal regarded as a hazard to shipping. Prof. Enzo Boschi, director of the Italian National Institute of Geophysics, said recently that waters above the island had been observed "bubbling" and there were "frequent tremors".

Back in 1831, before diplomatic incidents involving the Sicilians, English and French could get underway in earnest, the new island eaten away by the waves, sank back into the waters of the Mediterranean and disappeared. Forever? That remains to be seen.

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