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KRAKATOA The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 By Simon Winchester, HarperCollins, $25.95
Since the advent of cable television, National Geographic and Discovery Channel have brought home to millions of viewers the destructive power of our restless planet with their coverage of the eruptions of Mount St Helens, Mount Pinatubo or the almost continuous eruptions of Etna. Yet most people, if asked to name a famous volcanic disaster, will think of either Vesuvius (August 24, 79 AD) or Krakatoa (August 27, 1883). As Simon Winchester shows in this highly readable book, these two events, separated in time and space, are nevertheless connected in many ways. He finds “a pleasing symmetry” in the fact that Pliny the Elder, who left the most detailed description of the eruption of Vesuvius, left a memorial in the lexicon of modern vulcanology — Plinian, defined as an explosive eruption which destroys the volcano from which it emanates: “And the most devastating Plinian event of the modern era occurred 1,084 years, almost to the day at Krakatoa.”
The ruins of Pompeii — with its victims preserved forever in congealing ash (even a dog curled up in agony), and the vivid description of Pliny before he fell victim to the falling ash — bring out, with shocking immediacy, the horror of that day in 79 AD. And the sheer scale of the Krakatoa disaster — at least 30,000 dead, the sound heard as far away as Sri Lanka, garish sunsets for over two years, worldwide temperature changes — continues to haunt us. Why do these two disasters continue to haunt people’s imaginations' The book suggests an answer. Both catastrophes, happened in populated areas and were extensively reported. In the case of Krakatoa, the technological advances provided by the telegraph, the undersea cable and the flourishing of the news agencies enabled the news to be transmitted almost before the reverberations of the explosion died away: “the word Krakatoa…became in one awful ear-splitting moment a synonym for cataclysm, paroxysm, death, and disaster.”
A geologist by training, Winchester combines his expertise with a journalist’s sense of the telling anecdote. In this way he is able to explore comprehensively the underlying causes of the cataclysm — what titanic subterranean forces came to such an explosive head on that summer’s day in August 1883, as well as the social and political effects of the calamity.
A simple telling of the entire occurrence would not have merited a book: a longish article would have been sufficient. But this is a wide-ranging book, and in the current fashion, the author has written himself into it, from describing a geological expedition to Greenland (which confirmed sea-floor movement) to a conversation with a Chinese forester worried about ethnic disturbances in Jakarta today. Neither is irrelevant, and included to simply pad out the book. The theory of continental drift, first advanced by Alfred Wegener in the 19th century, has a direct relation to the cause of the volcanism of Indonesia; the Islamic fundamentalism plaguing the country today had its first stirrings in the aftermath of the disaster.
Winchester chooses to begin with the European advances into Asia. Neither cartographers nor mariners could escape noticing “an island with a pointed mountain” among the islands dotting the waterway. Many explanations have been given for the name Krakatoa — one is that it may be derived from the Sanskrit karkat, or crab.
It is not generally known that the eruption helped trigger a wave of anti-Western militancy with millenarian overtones which flared briefly. One of the flaws of this otherwise readable book is Winchester’s attitude to the leaders of the rebellion, which may not find favour with the current trend in historiography: “The melancholy condition of the Javanese and Sumatran peasantry was exploited by a corps of mullahs and scholars who had come back from their pilgrimages to Mecca and the Hadramaut…to strike against the godless Western infidels and kafirs who were posing such a threat to the purity of Islam.”
While building up the actual event, Winchester shows his ability to bring together data from disparate sources. In a long and fascinating chapter, “Close Encounters on the Wallace Line”, Winchester begins with the strange discovery of a zoo-geographical division within the islands of the East Indies, by the ornithologist, Philip Sclater: his observations would lead to the discovery of the theory of evolution by natural selection by Alfred Russel Wallace (simultaneously with Charles Darwin). What the Galapagos (another volcanic island group) was to Darwin, Indonesia was to Wallace. He is now remembered in the Wallace Line — an imaginary line which separates the flora and fauna of Asia from the flora and fauna of Australasia. Wallace dimly realized that this division was due to geology, but died before the discovery of the theory of continental drift and plate tectonics proved the underpinnings of his theory. Most people have had a vague memory of Alfred Wegener, the discoverer of the former, not many know that he was ridiculed in his lifetime. It was only in the 20th century with the discovery of sea-floor spreading and plate tectonics by Tuzo Wilson and others that Wegener’s theory was vindicated.
What earth science has revealed is a “Hadean nightmare” beneath the continental crust: far from being stable, the earth’s crust is a patchwork of shifting plates. But where the sea-floor plate dives under the contintental plate is created a subduction zone: it is along these subduction zones, in southeast Asia and the Pacific (“the ring of fire” in school geography textbooks — a phrase Winchester sedulously avoids using) that volcanic activity is the greatest. The downsliding plate takes with it tons of water which interacts with the white hot gaseous magma; this searches for a weakness in the crust, and having found one explodes with murderous force. And in a final delightful symmetry, he notes that the tracks of the subduction zones more or less follow the zoo-geographic line drawn by Wallace.
It is to Winchester’s credit that he can make this mass of scientific material readable and accessible to the general reader. Those readers who would like to know more about the explosion and the human impact, will find an account just as gripping as a disaster film, from the first rumbles, which caused a Delft dinner plate to break in the house in old Batavia, to the tsunami or seismic wave which engulfed whole towns and pushed a ship 80 miles inland.
A book which ranges from Greenland to southeast Asia and has a cast of thousands is bound to have flaws. One serious flaw is the lack of a good map pinpointing Krakatoa and its present incarnation, Anak (“Son” in Malay) Krakatoa in the Sunda strait. Another is the fact that the small islets bracketing Krakatoa appear to have different names in different maps. Nor is there any map of the towns like Anjar which took the brunt of the disaster.
Winchester warns that under the placid waters of the Sunda strait, the same forces could be building up for a repeat performance. Yet he ends on an optimistic note: the saga of Krakatoa — which had exploded more than once, if the geological record and traditional histories are to be believed — is a never-ending one. The revival of plant and animal life on the island has made it a biological laboratory, and “a freeze frame picture of the future of life itself…not even the world’s most dangerous volcano can do it truly irreparable damage.”