End of August 1831 in Paris. “The summer restlessness in the corridors of the Tuileries, where the royal power of the new July Monarchy is installed, breaks the wonderful excitement. Louis-Philippe I had barely been king of France for more than a year when a wild rumor flew through the chancellery: a new country would emerge from the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, to be precise about twenty kilometers from the southwest coast of Sicily,” says Benoist Simmat in the chapter he devotes to the island of Julia in to his book “Atlas of Transient Territories. Failed colonies and sovereign peculiarities of the history of France”, published by Robert Laffont in November 2022 (on sale in bookshops for 21 euros).
With a passion for history, geography and maritime exploration, the sovereign intends to take ownership of this volcanic archipelago that suddenly emerges from the waves through seismic activity. But he is not the only one with this idea. The other kingdoms share the same design. So you have to go fast. A large two-masted sailing vessel was immediately chartered. Captain Jean Lapierre took command and took on board the geologist Constant Prévost and the painter and designer Antoine-Edmond Joinville. On September 16, anchors were dropped in Toulon harbor.
Some sailors believe they are at the gates of hell
About ten days later the expedition arrived in sight of a new island: “a kind of great magma, spewing a cloud visible from a distance of about fifty miles,” describes Benoist Simmat. “The terrible smell of sulfur makes some naive sailors afraid of being near the gates of hell, but the spectacle offered, if there is nothing heavenly about it, is overwhelming,” he adds.
When the ship succeeded in approaching within eight miles, the expedition made two attempts to seize the place. And on September 29, 1831, the French planted a tricolor flag there and named this new territory “Juliet Island”. They made sure to take a barrel of wine with them on the canoe to celebrate the event, Benoist Simmat points out. But the problem is that they are not the only ones claiming possession. The neighboring Kingdom of the Two Sicilies announced that it was the first to set foot there in August and named the island “Ferdinandea» in honor of King Ferdinand II. Another name for the English, also in ranks: island “Graham». Not to mention the demands of Spain and Ireland.
No diplomatic problem in sight
In euphoria, Constant Prévost nevertheless continued his exploration of the island, which he considered a “stopping colony” for the French on the way to Algeria and, above all, a rare laboratory of geological development, explains Benoist Simmat. “However, there doesn’t seem to be much to gain from this volcanic rock seven hundred meters in circumference with the highest point at seventy meters, but that’s okay! With its internal pools whose water boils, its black sand exhaling slightly sweet hydrogen sulphide, its fumes obscuring visibility every five minutes, Julia is as inhospitable as the inner wing of Vesuvius,” nuance on its part.
Whatever happens, Constant and Louis-Philippe will quickly become disillusioned. At the beginning of December 1831, after some 21 weeks of discovery, “the young confetti of the French kingdom was again swallowed up by the Mediterranean,” concludes Benoist Simmat. He has not been seen since. Fortunately! Because if he were to emerge from the waters again, there would surely be a diplomatic problem. Because in the end we don’t know who the island belongs to. France, Italy or the UK?