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Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded Hardcover – April 1, 2003
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It may seem a stretch to connect a volcanic eruption with civil and religious unrest in Indonesia today, but Simon Winchester makes a compelling case. Krakatoa tells the frightening tale of the biggest volcanic eruption in history using a blend of gentle geology and narrative history. Krakatoa erupted at a time when technologies like the telegraph were becoming commonplace and Asian trade routes were being expanded by northern European companies. This bustling colonial backdrop provides an effective canvas for the suspense leading up to August 27th, 1883, when the nearby island of Krakatoa would violently vaporize. Winchester describes the eruption through the eyes of its survivors, and readers will be as horrified and mesmerized as eyewitnesses were as the death toll reached nearly 40,000 (almost all of whom died from tsunamis generated by the unimaginably strong shock waves of the eruption). Ships were thrown miles inshore, endless rains of hot ash engulfed those towns not drowned by 100 foot waves, and vast rafts of pumice clogged the hot sea. The explosion was heard thousands of miles away, and the eruption's shock wave traveled around the world seven times. But the book's biggest surprise is not the riveting catalog of the volcano's effects; rather, it is Winchester's contention that the Dutch abandonment of their Indonesian colonies after the disaster left local survivors to seek comfort in radical Islam, setting the stage for a volatile future for the region. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
An erudite, fascinating account by one of the foremost purveyors of contemporary nonfiction, this book chronicles the underlying causes, utter devastation and lasting effects of the cataclysmic 1883 eruption of the volcano island Krakatoa in what is now Indonesia. Winchester (The Professor and the Madman; The Map That Changed the World) once again demonstrates a keen knack for balancing rich and often rigorous historical detail with dramatic tension and storytelling. Rather than start with brimstone images of the fateful event itself, Winchester takes a broader approach, beginning with his own viewing of the now peaceful remains of the mountain for a second time in a span of 25 years-and being awed by how much it had grown in that time. This nod to the earth's ceaseless rejuvenation informs the entire project, and Winchester uses the first half of the text to carefully explain the discovery and methods of such geological theories as continental drift and plate tectonics. In this way, the vivid descriptions of Krakatoa's destruction that follow will resonate more completely with readers, who will come to appreciate the awesome powers that were churning beneath the surface before it gave way. And while Winchester graphically illustrates, through eyewitness reports and extant data, the human tragedy and captivating scientific aftershocks of the explosion, he is also clearly intrigued with how it was "a demonstration of the utterly confident way that the world, however badly it has been wounded, picks itself up, continues to unfold its magic and its marvels, and sets itself back on its endless trail of evolutionary progress yet again." His investigations have produced a work that is relevant to scholars and intriguing to others, who will relish it footnotes and all.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Krakatoa, a cone-topped island in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, was the product of much earlier volcanic activity and erupted catastrophically in August 1883. The area was at the time a cosmopolitan center of the European spice trade. The Portuguese had been trading spices (especially pepper) through Java since the early 16th century. A late 16th century Dutch expedition to the area (known as the East Indies) brought back the much-desired pepper for huge profit, and when the Dutch were granted a spice-trading monopoly in the area, the Dutch East India Company was formed to carry on this lucrative venture. Though Winchester was not so succinct, it can be said in summary that the Dutch co-opted the Hindu port city of Jayakarta, a "sultry, fetid estuary," and turned it into a company town they called Batavia. The city swelled with Dutch, Indonesians and Chinese.
Setting political history aside for the moment, Winchester turns to the science of the area. He mentions the distinctive distribution of animal life along either side of the east-west divide known as the Wallace line, after Alfred Russell Wallace whose work in the region was as groundbreaking as Darwin's in the Galapagos Islands. From zoogeographical distribution of species we move to Winchester's first love, geology: from the Pangaea theory of continental drift first proposed by the German Alfred Wegener, through 20th century studies of gravity and magnetism, to the overarching concept of plate tectonics published in 1969. Finally in plate tectonics we had an explanation for so much that was previously unexplained about the earth.
Winchester describes with enthusiasm the collision of massive plates on the surface of our planet, with the heavier oceanic basalt plates bullying their way under the edges of the lighter continental plates, creating weak spots where energy is released in earthquakes and (for the purposes of this book) volcanoes, with molten material creating island arcs. The area we now know as Indonesia sits on a great subduction zone between the Eurasian and Indo-Australian Plates, and its violent volcanic history is thus explained; Indonesia has more active volcanoes (130) than any other nation on earth. Krakatoa itself is known to have erupted in the past, particularly in 535 AD according to the evidence of ice cores and tree rings; though there is "historical catalepsy," as he puts it, in the written record; and again in 1680.
Picking up the thread of the region's inhabitants, the Dutch trade monopoly ended with the 17th century and Batavia was reconfigured as a colonial capital rather than a company town. World trade was drastically changed by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869; transoceanic telegraph cables were connecting the world around the same time (thanks, he tells us, to a natural latex sap called gutta-percha), and Batavia was rapidly being improved by the development of the telephone and gas and ice works.
More than halfway through Krakatoa CD: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 Winchester gives us the unimaginable violence of the eruption. Eruptions and tremors began in June of 1883, and on August 27 a series of violent explosions destroyed most of the island. Five cubic miles of material was blown into the atmosphere. Gas, lava and pumice, and especially tsunamis killed at least 36,000 people. The noise was heard 3,000 miles away and the pressure waves were recorded on barographs around the world, circling the globe at a perceptible level seven times. Ash particles were blown 120,000 miles into the atmosphere and gave the world vivid sunsets and refracted light from the sun and moon.
Winchester had no shortage of material to draw on. The Sunda Strait was under constant surveillance due to its importance to shipping. Thanks to telegraphy, the news was reported around the world instantly. The British Royal Society prepared a 500-page report. Artists and poets recorded the atmospheric phenomena. European immigrants wrote letters home. All grist for Winchester's mill.
As a coda to the eruptions, Winchester describes the unrest in the area and the way in which it foreshadowed the end of colonial rule. Muslim influence began to grow in the 19th century, and the mythic importance of the earth's violence dated back to a time "before science replaced seers." I thought he might go on to the dismantlement of the colonial structures in the 20th century, but he did not.
Although two-thirds of the island of Krakatoa was destroyed in 1883--blown into the air or falling into its own caldera--a new volcanic island known as Anak Krakatoa ("Child of Krakatoa") broke the surface in 1930 and continues to grow. The ecosystems of both the remnant island and the new cone have been studied and are described by Winchester, who visited Anak Krakatoa and found it as eerie as he expected. Events like this eruption, he tells us, are reminders of the truth of American historian Will Durant's quote: Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.
Simon Winchester's work is not for everyone, nor are books like this one, hip-deep in science, history and cataclysm. His books are like one-semester survey courses --"English Poetry from Beowulf to WWII", "World History 101"--or a pub crawl in Boston. When you finish you've certainly seen a lot, been challenged by the pace, possibly even feel a bit queasy with all you've seen and especially with all you've inevitably missed. But if you listen to the author's unabridged audio presentations and respond favorably, as I always do, to his enthusiasm for his subject and his dry, wry humor, then don't miss "Krakatoa." It's a rollicking, ambitious, fairly well-integrated book--for me, a five-star book.
Linda Bulger, 2009
If you like accounts of disasters, "Ship Ablaze" (General Slocum fire), "Dark Tide" (Boston Molasses Flood) and "Cherry Mine Disaster" (Cherry, IL mine fire) were much better than this one (especially the first two).
Then there's about 25 pages about Krakatoa, with a bunch interspersed about the development of the underwater telegraph. And then more about the explosions at Krakatoa and then a bunch about the rise of Islam in the Dutch East Indies and the eventual political freedom of Indonesia.
So you can find stuff about the explosion that shook the world (literally) and was heard nearly 3,000 miles away. You can hear about pumice stones flying miles into the air and pelting everyone and everything within 30 miles of Krakatoa. You can read about the multiple tsunamis that followed in the wake of the eruptions and explosions on the fateful day and how the estimated 100-foot wall of water was the ultimate killer of the estimated 35,000 who died on that day. And you can learn how scientific instruments around the world recorded that the shock waves from the explosion traveled the world 7 times, and that for about 2 years people as far away as England saw spectacular sunsets due to suspended iron-based particles. And how it is probably the loudest natural sound the world has experienced since man was formed.
It's all there, and done with great drama and feeling, as well as facts and numbers. But you have to wade through a lot of other stuff to get to Krakatoa itself. Some of the other material is interesting, and some are distracting asides by an author who can't help but tell you about some peripheral person on a ship near Krakatoa who later became president of the Royal Botanic Society or whatever. There's also more than a whiff of British racial superiority in the book, though the author definitely has sympathy for the peoples who were unwilling subjects of the Dutch, British, French, etc., over the years. Yet, he remarks in more than one place that the only "reliable" eyewitness information about Krakatoa comes from Europeans who were overlords in the region -- yes, that's the word he uses. Why does he think they are the only reliable ones?
So overall, it's an impressive book, with a ton of research on everything volcanic and the era and region where Krakatoa occurred. But because it has so much scope, the actual event is sort of lost in the big picture.