Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded by Simon Winchester is the incredible tale of the Indonesian volcano that exploded into smithereens in 1883. Jam-packed with fabulous twists, turns and diversions into geology, history, politics, technology and evolution, it’s a rollicking traipse across continents, disciplines and history.
The detonation of Krakatoa was the largest recorded explosion on earth, and occurred at a time when the world was in the midst of epoch-making change. As Winchester notes in his 2003-published book, Krakatoa was “the first-ever story about a truly enormous natural event that was both about the world and was told to the world. Part of the planet’s fabric had been ripped asunder: and part of that same planet, the part connected by cables and telegraphs and with access to newspapers, was now being informed of the event… Millions of people hitherto unknown to each other began to involve themselves, for the first time ever, in looking beyond their hitherto limited horizons of self; they started to inhabit a new and outward-gazing world that these story-telling agencies, and this event they were relating, were unwittingly helping to create.”
Krakatoa erupted at a time when the theory of evolution was being teased out; the era of global colonialism was just beginning the phase that would see it labour through its last gasps; the telegraph had just been invented; and plate tectonics was just starting to be understood. Krakatoa is not just the biography of a volcano, but rather a many-faceted moment in history, and one that Winchester effortlessly and rather relentlessly explores.
In the days before volcanology was really a science, and there was really no such thing as monitoring a volcano’s behaviour, Krakatoa’s eruption took Java, Sumatra and indeed the world by surprise, though the lead up to the main event took a number of months. The eruption killed nearly 40,000 people—the vast majority in tsunamis that occurred because of the eruption, rather than the eruption itself—and the sound of the explosion was heard nearly 3,000 miles away. Krakatoa, Winchester writes, became a part of the world’s cultural lexicon, “a word that people seemed to like to both say and to have said to them”. And in this book, the volcano gets its just attention for the layperson at last.
In the 400-page edition we have, Krakatoa doesn’t enter into its final explosive stage until about 200 pages in. For the eruption and the questions it created (and the answers it supplied) brings together many sciences and disciplines, all of which Winchester teases out in his inimitable, erudite manner. No trivia is too trivial, we could say, and yet Winchester doesn’t seem to present anything that isn’t, well, interesting and in some way pertinent to the central narrative.
We loved, for instance, the story of the eccentric elephant trainer who moved her little circus-performing pachyderm into her room at Batavia’s Hotel des Indes. The elephant ran amok, trashing the room. Shortly afterwards, Krakatoa blew; did the elephant know? Perhaps. Either way, it’s a wonderful anecdote.
We loved, as well, the diversion into evolution and coverage of one of our favourite historical figures, Alfred Russel Wallace (the spelling of his middle name due to a typo on his birth certificate, we discover) (see The Malay Archipelago and The Signature of All Things for more) and the story of Julius Reuter, who started the world’s first news agency in 1858 (he had used specially trained pigeons to get news from Paris to Brussels before telegraph lines were complete).
The diversions are whimsical and understandable; the story demands them. Consider (a footnote): “The agent was named Mr Schuit. But there is ample opportunity for confusion ahead, for in Anjer at the same time there happened to be a lighthouse keeper also called Mr Schuit, an unrelated widow-woman named Mrs Schuit and a newly appointed telegraph-master who was called Mr Schuit. Since all played major roles in the August cataclysm, it is as well to be forewarned.”
Yet the main, and compelling, story gets told, too. And there is, paradoxically, something life-affirming about terrible disasters such as Krakatoa. We are all at the mercy of nature, and nature puts us humbly in our place. Winchester writes, when he visits Anak Krakatoa, or the Child of Krakatoa, at the end of the book:
“The mechanics of the making of the world were all in evidence, just a few feet ahead of where I stood. All this talk of subduction zones, of the collisions between two of the world’s immense tectonic plates, of the unfolding of the ring of fire—it all came down to this. Here, in this hot, crystalline, yellow-grey, wheezing, whistling, mud-boiling cauldron, was where the consequences of subduction were being played out… It was a place that was all too evidently primed, ready at an instant to explode again—and, in exploding, to do goodness knows how much harm to the goodness knows how many souls waiting unwittingly down below.”
Given the rumblings of Bali’s Gunung Agung as of October 2017, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded makes for a currently relevant read to travellers here. But anyone with an interest in, well, the world at large, will find something compelling to draw them into this delightfully peripatetic history of Krakatoa.
108 results found