A digital update of Alexander von Humboldt’s Kosmos Lectures

The lectures and the later resulting Kosmos books became the foundation of many research projects in natural and societal science. Compared to today’s standards several of his observations are now better understood. Yet, the value of the lectures lies not only in their meaning for the history of sciences.

Von Humboldt discussed several phenomena that were not only interesting in the 19th century but also fill modern people with awe. Moreover, they were and still are of political relevance.

Among these topics is the sudden appearance of islands as a because of volcanic activities under the sea. Von Humboldt mentioned the island Sabrina in both lectures. The island is our starting point for a digital update of the Kosmos lectures. Therein we visualise the witness account of the eruption with modern photographs. Moreover, the topic was our inspiration for an audio drama that discusses the phenomenon in the context of the lectures.

Sabrina Island in the Azores

The island Sabrina formed in June/July 1811 as a result of the eruption of an underwater volcano close to the Island of St. Michael. Only a few months later it had already disappeared again. Such events happened before and many passed unnoticed or at least undocumented.

This time, the British Capitan S. Tillard witnessed the appearance and he published an account of his adventure in the scientific journal Philosophic Transactions of the Royal Society London. This publication could have been a source for von Humboldt’s knowledge of the events since that issue of the journal also featured a study of Herschel on the structure of comets that von Humboldt also discussed.

Tillard’s account of the island’s appearance

According to Tillard the eruption began on June 10th 1811 close to the island of St. Michael, two days later Tillard passed by with his ship HM Sabrina. At first, he took the columns of smoke on the horizon for an evidence of a sea battle but then remembered that he had heard of volcanic eruptions in the area in January.

Landing in the street of Ponta del Gada he found his assumption correct. Two days later, he rode in the company of the general consul and other men to a cliff on St. Michael from where they witnessed the eruptions.

The eruptions lasted several days in various forms. Find the detailed description under witness account

Returning on July 4th Tillard found an island roughly 80 Yards above sea level in a form that reminded him of an amphitheatre. Despite the island being still hot and very steep Tillard and some officers managed to climb on top of a platform where they planted the Union Jack, baptised the island ‘Sabrina’ after his ship and left a closed bottle with an account of its appearance.

A political dilemma?

What sounds like a great adventure could have caused major political problems! By planting the Union Jack Tillard claimed the island for the British crown. Yet, the Azores where the island had formed, belonged to Portugal. Moreover, Portugal and Great Britain were allies. At that time, Portugal helped Great Britain against France when Napoleon had enforced the continental blockade that aimed at economically isolating Great Britain.

Therefore, it was a fortunate coincidence, that the island had already disappeared when geographers came along to survey it. The geologist Dr. John Webster discussed the island based on the accounts of several witnesses. Maybe because of the political dilemma, he ignored the planting of the flag and tailored the accounts to give the impression that the island was too steep and hot so that nobody could have walked on it for more than a minute. Still, he published a sketch of the island that featured the platform with the flag on it.

Sabrina in Humboldt’ Kosmos

Alexander von Humboldt mentioned Sabrina in the context of volcanic activities and earthquakes. He connected the island to a series of seismic events that occurred from 1811 to 1813 in the wider vicinity.

Therein he listed a major earthquake that destroyed the city Carracas in 1812, followed by an eruption of St. Vincent in the nearby Antilles a month later and succeeding earthquakes in the plains of the Rivers Ohio and Mississippi and along the coast of Venezuela up to 1813.

Only the beginning

In his books von Humboldt mentions Sabrina with another island that appeared and disappeared under similar circumstances. Initiated by two weeks of earthquakes in the chain of underwater volcanoes known as Campi Flegrei Mar Sicilia an island appeared close to Sicily in June/July 1831.

This chain had previously produced similar events, one of which was already mentioned during the Punic wars. This time however, several ships of various nations cruised the Mediterranean. Again, ship captains produced accounts on the eruptions describing clouds and earthquakes similar to Tillard. Notable geologists like Constant Prévost and Warington Wilkinson Smyth documented the formation of the island.

Yet another aspect repeated – this time several European nations claimed the island. This is why the island was, among other names, baptised Ferdinandea, Julia, Graham Island . Luckily, again the political dilemma solved itself by the island sinking down again into the sea.

Yet, the story goes on with a sequel. When in the year 2000 renewed seismic activities were noticed in the area, Italian divers planted the Italian flag on top of the underwater volcano. Just in case that it would rise from the sea again, Italy could claim the island right away.

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