If there ever was a patron saint of Volcanocafé it would be the author Jules Verne. When he was not inventing cadres of literary genres, he was quite obsessed with volcanoes.
When he was not writing he spent his time reading about volcanoes (and other things scientific). And quite often he combined his interests of volcanoes and writing in books such as ‘A Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, ‘The Golden Volcano’ and ‘The Mysterious Island’ (to just name a few).
Earlier this week Albert and I was debating which Island was the inspiration for the volcano in The Mysterious Island where Captain Nemo met his end.
Both of us pointed with the hand imperiously, declaring it to be Graham Island (Albert) and Isola di Ferdinandea (me). It is in fact the same Island, and to increase the naming confusion, Jules Verne being of an utterly French persuasion would have called it Isle de Julia.
After thusly having imperiously doled out the volcanic lard about the issue something started to nag in the back of my head. So, I reread the book and the plot thickened, because Ferdinandea is not a really good candidate when you compare to the book.
As in any good mystery novel the protagonist must venture forth and study the minutia to get to greips with things. In the end I concluded that the cunning wily Vernian fox had used a number of disappearing volcanic Islands as his inspiration.
Isola di Ferdinandea
Jules Verne mentioned the volcano in no less than two books (‘Captain Antifer’ and ‘The Survivors of the Chancellor’), it is though not mentioned in The Mysterious Island. There is in fact not a single scrap of evidence that he used Ferdinandea as a spatially translocated inspiration for the lair of Captain Nemo.
The ephemeral Island of Ferdinandea is a vent of the larger volcano Empedocles that was first witnessed to erupt in 10AD by the Romans. Empedocles in turn is a part of the Campi Flegrei del Mar de Sicilia (if that is not the grandest volcanic name in history I do not know).
The watery Campi Flegrei in turn is on a volcanic line stretching from mainland Italy via Sicily over Ferdinandea, onwards across Pantelleria, all the way into the Libyan volcanic line where it connects to some African volcanic Shenanigans.
Now and then throughout history Empedocles have sprouted Islands, in 1831 it created Ferdinandea and a conflict broke out between The King of the Two Sicilies (math was not his strength), France, Spain and England.
The question though became moot as the Island withered away by the onslaught of the waves. If Jules Verne was not aware of an Island appearing and disappearing four times in history, he would have become aware of it as it reappeared a fifth time in 1863, this time the island was so minute that it disappeared within just a few days, and nobody got around to dunk down a flag on top of it.
The problem is that the final destruction of the fictitious Lincoln Island (The Mysterious Island) was a real humdinger, basically it exploded like Krakatau out of the water, instead the poor hapless Ferdinandea produced a surtseyan eruption and then just went silent and withered away.
No, not a good fit at all. So, we must venture forth and find something with a more explosive potential, and preferably pirates since The Mysterious Island indeed contained pirates. Who does not love a good volcanic pirate-story?
Dom Joao de Castro
Between São Miguel and Terceira, we find the Dom Joao de Castro Bank (another grand volcanic name). The reason that Verne would be familiar with this volcano is that it in the spring of 1718 sank two ships of the French Corsair Henry Tourin. An ending to a pirate worthy of Jack Sparrow if there ever was one.
As the eruption progressed, it on the 31st of December 1720 created a circular Island 1.5 kilometres across and reaching an impressive height of 250 metres. But as the ocean is a cruel mistress it in only two years withered away the Island into a bank 13 metres below the surface.
Today it is still active with fumarolic fields and it also has a parasitic cone that contains a fresh solidified lava lake fractured into a polygonal pattern, so it apparently erupted at some time after 1720, since it is not covered in tephra from the 1718-1720 eruption.
It is quite possible that Jules Verne grabbed the idea of the pirates from Dom Joao de Castro, but the eruption itself does not fit. We need something with a bit more of a wrecking-ball ending. Time to go back to the Club Med of Volcanoes.
6.5 kilometres Northeast of the Thera Caldera we find a far more deadly volcano lurking under the sunny waters of the Mediterranean.
In July of 1650 the volcano roared into life (truly roared, it was heard quite far), it rapidly built an island out of white tephra (white is a bad thing around volcanoes). As the Island blasted away into a 1-kilometre wide crater it caused pyroclastic flows and tsunamis to inundate the coast of Santorini, killing 70 people and destroying quite a few houses and boats on the beach.
We do not know if Verne knew about this eruption, but it is at least likely. And it fit the bill of being explosive as it disappeared. Problem is just that parts of Lincoln Island in the book survived, and Kolombo did not.
Also, in the book the Island was not a new shiny ash pile, it was quite old and verdant with a gently bopping volcano that in the end tore itself out. Question is if there is such a volcano that could have housed a cave large enough to house the Nautilus inside it, and that Verne would have known quite well?
Tomboro on Sumbawa
In early 1815 Tomboro was a handsome looking 4300 metres high volcano situated on the island of Sumbawa. At seven o’clock in the morning on the 6th of April 1815 the Island was devastated as Tomboro produced a pyroclastic base-surge as it suffered from an explosive caldera formation leaving a 6 by 7-kilometre caldera 700 metres deep.
Basically 2200 metres of the mountain was blown out in under a minute if you count from the bottom of the caldera to the pre-eruption height. From a human standpoint the vibrant Island and its culture was gone, even though a few survived the event and the ensuing mass starvation.
From a more geologic standpoint both the Island and the volcano survived. The volcano is in fact slowly rebuilding itself, as I was there galumphing about on the caldera floor, I found several fresh-looking lava flows, fumaroles and small vents. Thankfully it will take millennia for Tomboro to build up again to a state where it is able to produce larger eruptions.
1816 was the Year without a summer, a year any of the French persuasion would vividly know and remember for historical reasons. So, we can safely put Tomboro as a possible source of volcanic mayhem in Verne’s mind. Problem is just that the eruption did not destroy most of the Islands physical shape like it was at Lincoln Island. Onwards and Forwards into the next Caldera!
We know from the notes of Verne himself that he was quite aware of the Island of Santorini’s volcanic history. Without going into the eruption, we here have a volcanic eruption that sufficiently altered an Island to fit the bill.
Problem is just survivability. The protagonists in The Mysterious Island did indeed survive (at least in a Game of Thrones fashion) the eruption.
And here we have the problem in all its glory. An eruption large enough to destroy most of an Island would either kill you outright or be on an Island to large to be sufficiently destroyed.
It seems that instead the crafty genius Patron Saint of all things Volcanic, Jules Verne, did what need to be done for the sake of the plot. He brazenly invented a volcanic Island from scratch that would fit the bill of the book. Obviously, he picked parts and details of a few eruptions that he knew well, and thusly he ended up with inventing Krakatau.
Krakatau is the closest fit that we know about in the volcanic history when compared to the description of Lincoln Island. I would though not put a large wager upon the survivability of even literature heroes to survive the blast.
The Verne Conclusion
The mind of Jules Verne was inundated in Democracy, Science and the Future. He was also the founding father of Science-Fiction as a genre. He often ventured out in Space and the Future.
So, let us judge things from this angle instead and we will come to a rather stunning conclusion.
Let us begin with the master scientist and inventor of Captain Nobody, sorry I meant Nemo, and his gallant submarine Nautilus.
To this day Nautilus is beyond our technological ability to build since it had a top speed of 93 kilometres an hour. We know that it was propelled by electricity and we know how it had batteries that refuelled themselves through a technology that is both well described and that at least partially would work if anyone bothered with working out the kinks.
But the main engine is left in the vagaries of the wind. It is said in The Mysterious Island to have been a knowledge best kept to the future and far to powerful for the Countries of that era to hold and that Captain Nemo wanted to make sure that it would not fall into the wrong hands.
Nautilus itself was 70 metres long, weighed 1500 tons submerged, and was quite able to stay below for long periods and at the same time able to circumnavigate the globe at breakneck speed and that the hull was incredibly strong.
The closest anyone has ever come to producing a submarine fitting that description is the nuclear Project 705-Lira (Alfa-class in the western nomenclature). At 81.4 metres, 3200 tons submerged and 76 kilometres an hour it is the closest we have with a similar power to weight ratio. Nautilus is though a bit better than the Russian titanium-hulled monstrosity.
Now that we have a nuclear Nautilus, we can take a single step further and introduce nuclear torpedoes.
Now that we have a nuclear Nautilus with nuclear torpedoes and a quite dead Captain Nemo, it is simple to think that he would have created a deadmans-switch to make sure his secrets would go away for ever.
In the book the volcano is erupting, but otherwise it seems to be benign, and Captain Nemo accurately predicts that it will soon explode. Easiest way to do that is if you know that a nuclear bomb will go off near this gentle old volcano.
This is my preferred answer to the mystery. It is An answer, as usual there is no Definite answer. Life is good.