Krakatoa

This review appeared in the Sunday Times on 18 May 2003

Simon Winchester, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded  27 August 1883, Viking £16.99, pp. 432

As the American historian Will Durant famously pointed out, civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice. From the eruption of the Santorini volcano in 1470 BC, which led to the collapse of the Minoan civilization on Crete, to the Bingol earthquake of earlier this month, which killed over a hundred Kurdish schoolchildren, mankind has often found itself living in a state of tectonic emergency. The impact of most individual disasters, though, is usually confined to their immediate environments, with only passing levels of interest felt by the rest of the outside world. But there are certain, rare events which transcend their locations and become globally-shared, globally-remembered experiences, and the explosion of the Indonesian island of Krakatoa on Monday 27 August 1883 was one of them.

The eruption turned Krakatoa into the world’s most famous volcano, with its name, as Simon Winchester observes, remaining “firmly and immovably welded into the popular mind” ever since. But why, given that there have been so many other and newer eruptions around the world, has Krakatoa managed to retain its celebrity status? The 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée in Martinique, for example, killed nearly as many people as did the eruption of Krakatoa, but its name has never penetrated into the world’s wider consciousness to anything like the same degree. There is clearly something special about the story — and the name — of Krakatoa, something that goes beyond the geological reality, and it is one of the strengths of Simon Winchester’s approach to the subject that he sets out to show not just how and why it erupted in the first place, but how and why it has been remembered ever since.

The active volcanoes of South-East Asia are the result of unimaginable geological forces at work among the slowly moving tectonic plates which make up the earth’s upper mantle and crust. The Indo-Australian plate, which is travelling northwards at a rate of some 4 inches per year, is pushing up against the much larger and slower-moving Eurasian plate, and slipping under it, melting into the hot mantle below the join like the disappearing end of a conveyor-belt. Above the join sits the product of this slow, hot collision, a 3,000-mile-long chain of volcanic islands which constitute the archipelagos of Indonesia and the Philippines. Krakatoa, the best-known of all this chain’s 87 active volcanoes, sits, or rather sat, roughly half-way along, in the narrow strait which separates Java and Sumatra, the two largest islands of the Indonesian group. A glance at the map shows that Krakatoa is located a few miles to the west of Java, in spite of the claims of Bernard Kowalski, whose 1969 flop Krakatoa, East of Java remains one of the most gloriously mistitled movies of all time.

Because of the ongoing nature of the processes which formed it, Krakatoa has had a number of incarnations in its long and destructive career. What blew up in 1883 was a three-coned island that had slowly developed on the site of an earlier and greater eruption some 60,000 years before. And since 1883 a new volcanic island, named Anak Krakatoa (“the child of Krakatoa”), has recently appeared in its place, and is now growing up at the alarming rate of 20 feet a year. Just like any other troubled adolescent, Anak Krakatoa has already started to smoke, and will certainly go on to cause a major new eruption at some unknown point in the future, when the pressure from below has got too much. The island of Krakatoa is, as Simon Winchester points out in the opening pages of this gripping and cautionary tale, a relentless place which “absolutely and very visibly refuses to die,” for no matter how completely it destroys itself it will recover and do it again, and with the same level of ferocity which so shocked the world in 1883.

The noise of the 1883 eruption was the loudest sound ever recorded on earth, and was heard nearly 3,000 miles away on the island of Rodriguez in the western Indian Ocean, where it sounded, according to a report submitted by the local chief of police, “like the distant roar of heavy guns.” But it was nearer to the blast that the real impact was felt, when the shock of the explosion — in which 6 cubic miles of island rock were vaporised in an instant — displaced huge quantities of surrounding seawater, which then rushed towards the neighbouring coasts of Java and Sumatra in the form of 100-foot-high vertical waves which wiped out everything in their path. These mountainous tsunamis destroyed 165 coastal villages, and were responsible for the vast majority of the 36,417 deaths which resulted from the eruption of Krakatoa. “All gone. Plenty lives lost,” as a telegram from Serang quietly described it.

The scale of the destruction is hard to comprehend, but Winchester does an excellent job of bringing the events to life, putting them into their human, as well as their geological, context. As in his previous two books, The Surgeon of Crowthorne and The Map that Changed the World, Winchester’s instinct for the telling anecdote is put to brilliant use. We learn, for example, that the eruption coincided with a phase of heightened anti-colonial feeling in what was then the Dutch East Indies, so it seems curiously appropriate that its first recorded casualty should have been a blue Delft dinner plate belonging to a Mrs van der Stok, the wife of an Utrecht meteorologist who had been posted to Batavia (as Jakarta then was known) to run the Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory. Dr van der Stok made a careful note of the time of the tremor while his wife cleared away the broken shards. Within weeks, however, the world that they knew, with all its certainties and all “the slightly desperate merriment of colonial life,” as Winchester describes it, had been completely torn apart by the volcano.

Richard Hamblyn

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