Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

by Simon Winchester
ISBN: 0066212855

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A Natural Disaster Remembered World-Over
by Clara Thomas

Simon Winchester has a genius for titles. His The Map that Changed the World and The Madman and the Prophet became best-sellers and Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded is well on its way to a similar success. Our all-too-human enjoyment of disasters, especially those far away in time and geography, guarantees the morbid curiosity that will move this book off the shelves and Winchester's skilled managing of his narrative guarantees our continuing attention.
The deadly eruption of Krakatoa, the volcano that once was a populous island in the Indonesian archipelago, occurred on August 27, 1883, entirely obliterating the island and killing some 40,000 people. Most of them were victims of the deadly tsunamis, huge tidal waves up to 100 feet high which swept away everything in their path, leaving behind nothing but the detritus of total destruction. I remember as a child being awed and terrified by a drawing of one such wave and its victims, one of several illustrations in a children's book that had belonged to my father about the turn of the twentieth century. Franklin's ice-locked ship, a charging grizzly and a little girl being carried away by a huge eagle were also among its illustrations, all of them indelibly memorable and certainly the stuff of nightmares.
Krakatoa is a beautifully produced book enriched by drawings, maps and photographs, and given scholarly substance by footnotes and a lengthy bibliography. Though Winchester does not arrive at the actual eruption until Chapter Eight, "The Paroxysm, the Flood, and the Crack of Doom", two-thirds through his text, he arouses and sustains suspense from the very first. In "The Prelude" he visits western Java in the 1970s and views "the small gathering of islands that is all that remains of what was once a mountain called Krakatoa." To carry his reader through the text he frames one cataclysm with the promise of another: "Krakatoa looks peaceful and serene...But looks are deceptive: all the while the child-mountain is growing steadily and rapidly, as the elemental fires that created the world rage deep inside." Winchester is a master of unremitting disaster discourse.
We begin the tale with the earliest attraction of Java and its surrounding islands for western explorers-the spice trade. It was well established in Roman times, but its significance to the story of Krakatoa really begins with the explorations and colonizations of the Dutch in the late 16th century. Winchester tells us of "shoals" of Dutch fleets and of their inevitable clashes with the equally aggressive British and Portuguese. By 1619 the Dutch had won, their regional headquarters had been named Batavia and Jan Pieterzoon Coen was the first Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies. Soon there was a thriving Dutch colony there busily promoting all kinds of trade with the east. Particularly important for this story were also the scientists and map makers who charted the island-strewn area and also watched and reported on the volcanic activity, so obvious from time to time around them. Although Winchester has an eye and an ear for telling vignettes of this colonial civilization, so strange an eastern outcropping in its Holland-based manners and morals, his major interest is in the scientific discoveries that gradually unlocked the mysteries of geologic formation and movement in the region.
His academic background in Geology informs his research, particularly his presence as a sled hauler and radio operator on a 1965 expedition to Greenland. The rock samples brought back for study in various laboratories finally and conclusively proved the theory of continental drift. Back in the 19th century the work of Alfred Russel Wallace, known as "Darwin's Moon", but in fact Charles Darwin's equal in pioneering the science of evolution, and Alfred Lothar Wegener, a German Arctic explorer and meteorologist, had been preeminent among the scientists who laid the theory's groundwork. It was the Canadian, J.Tuzo Wilson, a University of Toronto Professor, who took the final steps to create the science known as "Plate Tectonics": "The stabilists-as were called those who believed as most once had, that the world and its continents had always been in approximately the same place-had finally to yield. The day belonged to the mobilists, who had since Wegener's time argued that the continents wandered, with what are known to be highly dramatic and visible effects-such as the creation of the modern map of the world." It takes an extraordinarily patient reader to follow Winchester through the maze of information, evidence and explanatory footnotes he presents, but at its end, it is easy to grasp the significance for the story of Krakatoa of this restless movement of the crust of the earth.
When the narrative finally reaches its climax-the eruption and its aftermath, its description of the devastation is masterful in its detail and variety, for Winchester is anxious to make this central point: "It was neither fire nor gas nor flowing lava that killed most of the victims of Krakatoa. All but the thousand who were burned in Sumatra by the immolating heat of newly made ash and pumice and scalding gases died by the primary agency of water." It was the towering walls of water, in one recorded instance destroying buildings on a hill 115 feet high that obliterated villages and killed at least 35,000. For months the aftermath was observed around the world, for the millions of tons of dust that erupted into the upper air caused spectacular sunsets and cloud formations months later, painted by artists in America, England, South Africa and Chile. The Krakatoa Committee of England's Royal Society invited responses from the public and received "wagonloads" of material for their 494-page report, two-thirds of which was devoted to unusual visual phenomena of the atmosphere.
Almost certainly no natural catastrophe has ever been so completely documented and now so completely re-recorded in a detailed narrative. The details of destruction are awe-inspiring, but its aftermath, detailing nature's slow but stubborn recovery lends an upbeat swing to the book's finale. Now a small island named Anak Krakatoa, son of Krakatoa, by a Russian geophysicist who witnessed its emergence from the sea has taken the place of Krakatoa. On it and on the island fragments that were all that remained of the ruined Krakatoa the world's scientists tirelessly seek the answers to two crucial questions: "how did and how does life recover," and "how did and how does life start." Typical of Winchester's unremitting story-telling flair is his final vignette, a meeting with a six-foot lizard on Anak Krakatoa and his retreat, "with as much dispatch as was consonant with the dignity of the occasion." Like travel writers from time immemorial he ends his saga with the assurance of safe return: "And as we sailed on into the gathering dark, so the twinkling lights of the west of Java were coming up fast over the bow."

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