Krakota: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester

[6 August 2003]

By Jordan Adair

News Erupts on a Global Scale

The unfit die—the fit both live and thrive.
Alas, who says so? They who do survive.
—Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn, “The Survival of the Fittest”

It “began with a sudden trembling,” grew steadily more ominous hour by hour, and ended with a massive, devastating explosion. It, of course, is the eruption of the largest of three volcanoes on the island of Krakatoa in the East Indies (between Java and Sumatra). The world’s fifth most powerful volcanic eruption claimed the lives of over 35,000 people and literally destroyed the island. However, the significance of the eruption of Krakatoa lies not in its power, but in its timing. Fifty years earlier nobody would have known, fifty years later nobody would have cared beyond the normal tragedy-induced rubbernecking. But in 1883, the world was reeling from Darwin’s proof that humans are not only part of but controlled by nature, and the newly invented telegraph instantly communicated the news of the disaster to the whole world.

Using his sophisticated understanding of geology, his facile gifts as a storyteller, and his singular ability to weave together the disparate elements of a complex and wide-ranging narrative, Simon Winchester has written a compelling, highly readable tale of the explosion that rocked the late 19th century world and forever changed the way humans viewed themselves and the landscape around them.

From the outset we know what is to come and the precise date on which it occurs—there is no mystery about that; however, what Winchester has done is synthesize an incredibly varied store of information and bring all of these elements together to explain not only the scientific reasons for the eruptions, but also the implications of this cataclysmic event. At the beginning he explores the spice trade (and the “precious black Java pepper” European traders so desired), the growing power of the Dutch seafaring fleet and its displacement of the Portuguese as the ruling power in the Oriental spice trade, and the astonishing amount of profit that would come from their traffic in such goods. Perhaps any diligent historian could research this subject, and Winchester has clearly pursued every relevant text in his search for the details of the settlement and colonizing of the East Indies by the Dutch. But it is how he uses this information in the service of telling his story that reveals the considerable quality of this book.

The mid-nineteenth century was rich with exciting scientific discoveries, many of which had a direct bearing on our ultimate understanding of the formation of the earth and of volcanic activity. It is Winchester’s background as a geologist (he studied the subject at Oxford University and in 1965 participated in a ground-breaking geologic expedition to Greenland that had a bearing on the very subject of his book) and his writing for Smithsonian and National Geographicthat bear the greatest fruit in this story, for he writes knowledgeably, trenchantly and, more importantly, understandably, about such esoteric scientific subjects as plate tectonics, subduction zones, and the Wallace Line. By the time he reaches the eruption and its aftermath, he has schooled the reader brilliantly in all of the required sciences so that we understand why and how the eruptions occurred. We also gain a greater appreciation of the destructive power of tsunamis, the huge waves generated by the eruptions, which caused the deaths of 35,500 men, women, and children. Winchester’s descriptions of the havoc wrecked by these killer waves are both instructive and chilling.

In his examination of the biological significance of this area, Winchester discusses the contributions of Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace’s exhaustive study of the plants and animals of the East Indies (the Spice Islands to be exact) helped him come to a “sudden understanding” of evolution, many believe before and independently of his more famous colleague, Charles Darwin. And Winchester pitches the idea that perhaps we should consider the Spice Islands, not the Galapagos, as the “true birthplace of the science of evolution”. His discussion of Wallace’s extensive examinations offers a strong case in support of this argument.

Winchester goes well beyond the significance of these biological and geological explanations to explore the socio-cultural and political implications of the eruptions, something that clearly separates his book from others written on Krakatoa. His contention that this event hastened a sort of global unification resonates on a number of levels (he employs the words of the 60’s American iconoclast Marshall McLuhan to state his belief that on August 27, 1883, the world ceased to be a collection of disconnected peoples and became a truly “Global Village”). The invention of the marine telegraph enabled an agent of the Society of Lloyd’s (at the time the most venerable agency of insurance underwriters for ships) to send a message about the eruption to his office in London within minutes of its happening. Initially, the story rated only a brief mention in the The Times; however, the rest of the world would soon learn of this stunning turn of events as news spread out from all of the editions of The Times and through the eager peddling of the Reuter’s news agency. The world was swiftly becoming “an almost infinitely large association of interconnected individuals and perpetually intersecting events”, for this was the first story ever “about a truly enormous natural event that was both about the world and was told to the world”.

The next one hundred years would see increasing scrutiny of a whole host of issues connected to this event. And on a distinctly contemporary note, Winchester argues that the eruption of Krakatoa “presaged all of the debates that continue to this day: about global warming, greenhouse gases, acid rain, ecological interdependence”. Scientists continue to examine the global implications of natural disasters as they seek to understand the complexities of the earth.

In what is perhaps his most intriguing exploration, Winchester examines the origins of Islam in the East Indies and demonstrates a compelling connection between a natural disaster and the resulting social unrest. The earliest-known Muslim grave on Java dates from 1419 and currently 170 million Indonesians call themselves Muslims, making it the largest Islamic population in the world. In this examination, he asks the important questions about the long-term political and social implications of the eruptions:

So did the eruption somehow act as a political catalyst? Did it, for reasons deeply rooted in . . . Javanese mysticism, drive a wedge between the terrified and dispossessed people and the paternalistic Dutch authorities? Did it then nudge them toward the comforting stability of Islam? And did Islam’s subsequent defiant stance against colonialism then somehow offer such succor and comfort to those who were dispossessed and terrified that they wholeheartedly accepted the offer to follow its precepts and demands, however extreme they might be?

In light of the 2000 bombing in Bali and the long history of terrorist acts in the name of Islam, his questions, and the answers he provides, offer a sobering explanation of why many of the world’s poor gravitate to violent religious extremist movements.

On a lighter note, some of the most fascinating reading in Winchester’s book is found in the more arcane details. For instance, Rodriguez Island holds the record for the greatest distance “between the place where unamplified and electrically unenhanced natural sound was heard and the place where that same sound originated” (2,968 miles). The first sign of life on the devastated island was the ballooning spider, an insect which travels on air currents. And in the final chapter Winchester tells of his most recent visit to what is now called “Anak Krakatoa” (the son of Krakatoa). After returning from a stressful climb to the summit of the still bubbling and smoking volcano, he sits down at the base of the mountain for a rest and something to eat-and ends up feeding the remnants of his sandwich to a curious six-foot-long banded monitor lizard.

It seems oddly appropriate that Winchester ends his book with a personal journey, for this is a work of deep personal significance to him. It is also a book of tremendous importance to our understanding of the place of humans in the natural landscape. The Krakatoa eruption and the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, as well as the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Japan, all point to the unpredictable power of the earth and the relative insignificance of humans in the face of such awesome destruction. All of these events have engendered in Simon Winchester a healthy respect for the earth’s geologic processes, a respect he believes all of us could stand to cultivate. I couldn’t agree with him more.

Published at: