Krakatoa: The Day The World Ended: August 27, 1883 (Simon Winchester)

krakatoaOne of the great events in the history of the 19th century. It was exactly 10:02 a.m. on Monday, August 27, 1883 when the small volcanic island of Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra blew itself out of existence with an explosion that was heard thousands of miles away and that resulted in the deaths of over 36,000 people. That eruption is believed to be the loudest sound ever heard by human ears.

This act of God produced tidal waves of well over a hundred feet that inundated the shores of Java and Sumatra, and whose detonation produced a sonic boom that was heard 3,000 miles away, ejecting such a mass of volcanic ash into the atmosphere that caused a drop in global temperatures, as well as eerily beautiful sun-sets around the world. This event has never failed to grip the public’s imagination as one of the most awesome display of the powers of Mother Nature. In this account of the titanic geological upheaval, Simon Winchester has successfully placed the event in its proper geological, historical, political and social contexts. The description of the final paroxysm actually occupies less than half of its pages.

On the other hand, Winchester sets the scene brilliantly by describing, in fascinating detail, the colourful early colonial days of the East Indies, the installation of the worldwide network of telegraphic cables (which rendered the eruption of Krakatoa to be one of the first events which received immediate global press coverage) as well as the unique distribution of flora and fauna along the Indonesia archipelago. There is a discussion on the theory of plate tectonics and its tortuous road of discovery by generations of earth scientists. Also included is an analysis of the political and religious repercussions that the eruption had for the East Indies, a chapter on the gradual return of life to the remnants of the site of devastation.

Given that Winchester writes in a very fluent style, and that there is also a sense of humour where appropriate. What Winchester does not develop to the full, however, is the eruption of Krakatoa itself and its immediate consequences. Winchester quotes and summarizes statements from eye-witnesses from different locations and these portions are as vivid as ever. Yet, after all the preparation, the climax of the story comes a little tepid and I am slightly underwhelmed by the account. Somehow, Mr Winchester has not quite captured the full horror and magnitude of the event. Perhaps a lengthier treatment and more extensive quotes from eye-witnesses may have helped.

For example, Winchester uses the diary of Mrs Beyerinck on her and her family’s dramatic escape to the hills just before the onslaught of those massive waves that subsequently annihilated their village. Yet, Winchester’s account stops at the point when the family has succeeded in scrabbling to safety in their hillside refuge. As the Beyerincks are not mentioned again after that, readers may assume that their ordeal was over by then. Far from it! When Krakatoa finally blew itself apart the following morning, the place where the Beyerincks were lodging was actually still very close to the volcano itself and the fiery ash clouds descended upon the hillside. These ash clouds incinerated and killed many of the natives that had also gathered at nearby locations. An injured and greatly traumatized Mrs Beyerinck penned a harrowing account of their plight, which virtually resembles a ghastly sojourn in Dante’s hell that only ended days later when they were rescued.

Similarly, there are too few accounts on the horrors wreaked by those monumental waves. There are too few photographic illustrations (sketches and maps dominate), given the colour and exoticism inherent to the story. Some of the maps have failed to identify several of the major towns, villages and other locations that play important parts in the narrative and their absence can give rise to difficulties when the reader wishes to follow the path of destruction geographically. If this book were to be compared to a formal multi-course dinner, I would say that it is rich and delightful in its entree, soup and dessert while the main course is somewhat below expectations. But I suppose that it can still whet the appetite of those who are yet unfamiliar with the event such that they can themselves explore further should they wish to lay their hands on a more exhaustive account of the eruption itself.



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