Volcanic Islands

Author: Charles Darwin

On the Distribution of Volcanic Islands.

During my investigations on coral-reefs, I had occasion to consult the works of many voyagers, and I was invariably struck with the fact, that with rare exceptions, the innumerable islands scattered throughout the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans, were composed either of volcanic, or of modern coral-rocks. It would be tedious to give a long catalogue of all the volcanic islands; but the exceptions which I have found are easily enumerated: in the Atlantic, we have St. Paul’s Rock, described in this volume, and the Falkland Islands, composed of quartz and clay-slate; but these latter islands are of considerable size, and lie not very far from the South American coast (Judging from Forster’s imperfect observation, perhaps Georgia is not volcanic. Dr. Allan is my informant with regard to the Seychelles. I do not know of what formation Rodriguez, in the Indian Ocean, is composed.): in the Indian Ocean, the Seychelles (situated in a line prolonged from Madagascar) consist of granite and quartz: in the Pacific Ocean, New Caledonia, an island of large size, belongs (as far as is known) to the primary class. New Zealand, which contains much volcanic rock and some active volcanoes, from its size cannot be classed with the small islands, which we are now considering. The presence of a small quantity of non-volcanic rock, as of clay-slate on three of the Azores (This is stated on the authority of Count V. de Bedemar, with respect to Flores and Graciosa (Charlsworth "Magazine of Nat. Hist." volume 1 page 557). St. Maria has no volcanic rock, according to Captain Boyd (Von Buch "Descript." page 365). Chatham Island has been described by Dr. Dieffenbach in the "Geographical Journal" 1841 page 201. As yet we have received only imperfect notices on Kerguelen Land, from the Antarctic Expedition.), or of tertiary limestone at Madeira, or of clay-slate at Chatham Island in the Pacific, or of lignite at Kerguelen Land, ought not to exclude such islands or archipelagoes, if formed chiefly of erupted matter, from the volcanic class.

The composition of the numerous islands scattered through the great oceans being with such rare exceptions volcanic, is evidently an extension of that law, and the effect of those same causes, whether chemical or mechanical, from which it results, that a vast majority of the volcanoes now in action stand either as islands in the sea, or near its shores. This fact of the ocean-islands being so generally volcanic is also interesting in relation to the nature of the mountain-chains on our continents, which are comparatively seldom volcanic; and yet we are led to suppose that where our continents now stand an ocean once extended. Do volcanic eruptions, we may ask, reach the surface more readily through fissures formed during the first stages of the conversion of the bed of the ocean into a tract of land?

Looking at the charts of the numerous volcanic archipelagoes, we see that the islands are generally arranged either in single, double, or triple rows, in lines which are frequently curved in a slight degree. (Professors William and Henry Darwin Rogers have lately insisted much, in a memoir read before the American Association, on the regularly curved lines of elevation in parts of the Appalachian range.) Each separate island is either rounded, or more generally elongated in the same direction with the group in which it stands, but sometimes transversely to it. Some of the groups which are not much elongated present little symmetry in their forms; M. Virlet ("Bulletin de la Soc. Geolog." tome 3 page 110.) states that this is the case with the Grecian Archipelago: in such groups I suspect (for I am aware how easy it is to deceive oneself on these points), that the vents are generally arranged on one line, or on a set of short parallel lines, intersecting at nearly right angles another line, or set of lines. The Galapagos Archipelago offers an example of this structure, for most of the islands and the chief orifices on the largest island are so grouped as to fall on a set of lines ranging about N.W. by N., and on another set ranging about W.S.W.: in the Canary Archipelago we have a simpler structure of the same kind: in the Cape de Verde group, which appears to be the least symmetrical of any oceanic volcanic archipelago, a N.W. and S.E. line formed by several islands, if prolonged, would intersect at right angles a curved line, on which the remaining islands are placed.

Von Buch ("Description des Isles Canaries" page 324.) has classed all volcanoes under two heads, namely, CENTRAL VOLCANOES, round which numerous eruptions have taken place on all sides, in a manner almost regular, and VOLCANIC CHAINS. In the examples given of the first class, as far as position is concerned, I can see no grounds for their being called "central;" and the evidence of any difference in mineralogical nature between CENTRAL VOLCANOES and VOLCANIC CHAINS appears slight. No doubt some one island in most small volcanic archipelagoes is apt to be considerably higher than the others; and in a similar manner, whatever the cause may be, that on the same island one vent is generally higher than all the others. Von Buch does not include in his class of volcanic chains small archipelagoes, in which the islands are admitted by him, as at the Azores, to be arranged in lines; but when viewing on a map of the world how perfect a series exists from a few volcanic islands placed in a row to a train of linear archipelagoes following each other in a straight line, and so on to a great wall like the Cordillera of America, it is difficult to believe that there exists any essential difference between short and long volcanic chains. Von Buch (Idem page 393.) states that his volcanic chains surmount, or are closely connected with, mountain-ranges of primary formation: but if trains of linear archipelagoes are, in the course of time, by the longcontinued action of the elevatory and volcanic forces, converted into mountain-ranges, it would naturally result that the inferior primary rocks would often be uplifted and brought into view.

Some authors have remarked that volcanic islands occur scattered, though at very unequal distances, along the shores of the great continents, as if in some measure connected with them. In the case of Juan Fernandez, situated 330 miles from the coast of Chile, there was undoubtedly a connection between the volcanic forces acting under this island and under the continent, as was shown during the earthquake of 1835. The islands, moreover, of some of the small volcanic groups which thus border continents, are placed in lines, related to those along which the adjoining shores of the continents trend; I may instance the lines of intersection at the Galapagos, and at the Cape de Verde Archipelagoes, and the best marked line of the Canary Islands. If these facts be not merely accidental, we see that many scattered volcanic islands and small groups are related not only by proximity, but in the direction of the fissures of eruption to the neighbouring continents—a relation, which Von Buch considers, characteristic of his great volcanic chains.

In volcanic archipelagoes, the orifices are seldom in activity on more than one island at a time; and the greater eruptions usually recur only after long intervals. Observing the number of craters, that are usually found on each island of a group, and the vast amount of matter which has been erupted from them, one is led to attribute a high antiquity even to those groups, which appear, like the Galapagos, to be of comparatively recent origin. This conclusion accords with the prodigious amount of degradation, by the slow action of the sea, which their originally sloping coasts must have suffered, when they are worn back, as is so often the case, into grand precipices. We ought not, however, to suppose, in hardly any instance, that the whole body of matter, forming a volcanic island, has been erupted at the level, on which it now stands: the number of dikes, which seem invariably to intersect the interior parts of every volcano, show, on the principles explained by M. Elie de Beaumont, that the whole mass has been uplifted and fissured. A connection, moreover, between volcanic eruptions and contemporaneous elevations in mass has, I think, been shown to exist in my work on Coral-Reefs, both from the frequent presence of upraised organic remains, and from the structure of the accompanying coral-reefs. (A similar conclusion is forced on us, by the phenomena, which accompanied the earthquake of 1835, at Concepcion, and which are detailed in my paper (volume 5 page 601) in the "Geological Transactions.") Finally, I may remark, that in the same Archipelago, eruptions have taken place within the historical period on more than one of the parallel lines of fissure: thus, at the Galapagos Archipelago, eruptions have taken place from a vent on Narborough Island, and from one on Albemarle Island, which vents do not fall on the same line; at the Canary Islands, eruptions have taken place in Teneriffe and Lanzarote; and at the Azores, on the three parallel lines of Pico, St. Jorge, and Terceira. Believing that a mountain-axis differs essentially from a volcano, only in plutonic rocks having been injected, instead of volcanic matter having been ejected, this appears to me an interesting circumstance; for we may infer from it as probable, that in the elevation of a mountain-chain, two or more of the parallel lines forming it may be upraised and injected within the same geological period.


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Chicago: Charles Darwin, "On the Distribution of Volcanic Islands.," Volcanic Islands, ed. Bryant Conant, James and trans. Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866 in Volcanic Islands Original Sources, accessed August 14, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4TL4XAA96UHJ14N.

MLA: Darwin, Charles. "On the Distribution of Volcanic Islands." Volcanic Islands, edited by Bryant Conant, James, and translated by Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866, in Volcanic Islands, Original Sources. 14 Aug. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4TL4XAA96UHJ14N.

Harvard: Darwin, C, 'On the Distribution of Volcanic Islands.' in Volcanic Islands, ed. and trans. . cited in , Volcanic Islands. Original Sources, retrieved 14 August 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4TL4XAA96UHJ14N.