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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa, the Day the World Exploded details the awesome eruption in 1883 of the volcano-island of Krakatoa. In the prelude to his work, Winchester gives his account of this event’s sweeping historical significance, explaining the wide range of consequences it has had and, he would argue, is continuing to have on the world.

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The work’s early chapters seek to place the event in its historical, social, and scientific context. The second chapter gives a geographical description of Krakatoa itself and its surrounding area. The third chapter gives a social and political history of Dutch colonial rule in the region, detailing the development of a thriving, if divided, society on the island of Java. In this and the subsequent chapters Winchester does an excellent job of describing the experience of Dutch colonists and local people as distinct yet connected by their involvement in the same cataclysmic event.

In the fourth chapter Winchester explores the geological causes for Krakatoa’s eruption, referring in particular to Alfred Russel Wallace, who was the first to chart the fault line on which Krakatoa was situated: the one that would lead to its eruption.

During the lead up to the book’s climax, Winchester builds tension by identifying a number of seemingly unrelated events, such as the inexplicable panic of a circus elephant, which warn a reader of the upcoming eruption. His handling of the event itself employs a wide variety of eye-witness accounts to provide different perspectives on this cataclysm, accounts he intersperses with detailed commentary on the geological processes that were taking place. He pays particular attention to the tsunamis and floods which were responsible for the majority of the 36,000 fatalities resulting directly from Krakatoa’s eruption.

The book’s later chapter’s deal with the eruption’s social fallout, exploring in particular how the moderate form of Islam that had been prevalent across the region until that time was hardened by what many perceived as an indication of divine displeasure at colonial rule. Winchester argues that in this respect, Krakatoa’s legacy is still observable in the twenty-first century, linking it to the bombings on the island of Java in 2002. Winchester’s work does far more than provide a scientific account of a historical event, in that it makes regular intriguing diversions to explore questions of economics, ancient history, and even etymology. Such an approach is perhaps necessary in giving a comprehensive account of an event with such wide-reaching consequences.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1641

The eruption of the tiny Indonesian island of Krakatoa stands even today as a milestone. It was, says science writer Simon Winchester, the “greatest detonation, the loudest sound, the most devastating volcanic event in modern recorded human history.” The eruption may ultimately have been responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people and resulted in climatic, historical, and social consequences so far-reaching that many are still felt today. The island’s very name has become a byword for catastrophe.

Winchester traces Europeans’ first knowledge of Krakatoa’s nature to a secondhand report from Johan Vilhelm Vogel of the Dutch East India Company. While traveling on the ship de Zijp in 1681, the official witnessed a “burned and barren” island in place of the once-verdant “Craketovv,” as he spelled it, that lay in the Sunda Strait between the much larger islands of Java and Sumatra. In May of the preceding year, the ship’s captain told him, the crew had experienced an earthquake and an enormous crash, had smelled sulfur, and had scooped up pumicelike stones floating on the surface of the sea—all in the vicinity of Krakatoa.

More important to Winchester’s story is British naturalist and writer Alfred Russel Wallace, who identified a kind of natural division, still known as Wallace’s Line, running from northeast to southwest through the seventeen thousand islands of Indonesia. Having spent many years in the region collecting and preserving zoological specimens, Wallace had come to realize that animal life found west of this line differed dramatically from that found east of it. West of the line were apes and monkeys, tigers and elephants, and many other animals at least moderately familiar to Wallace and his fellow Europeans. None of these were found east of the line, where instead there dwelt kangaroos and wombats and the even stranger duck-billed platypus. Perhaps most remarkable of all, some of the islands thus divided are only a few miles apart.

Without knowing it, Wallace had stumbled upon evidence of what is recognized today as a collision between vast tectonic plates, an event that, however slow, can have catastrophic consequences—as the eruption of Krakatoa illustrates. Winchester introduces another scientist, Alfred Lothar Wegener, who was the first to put forward the theory of continental drift, which posits that over the ages the great landmasses have migrated, or drifted, to their present positions. Rejected during his lifetime as a crank, Wegener is recognized today as a key figure in the development of modern geology.

The zones where tectonic plates meet are known as subduction zones, and in Indonesia, where the Indo-Australian and Eurasian plates meet, the tracks of the zones largely follow Wallace’s Line. Although Krakatoa is west of that line, it lies between one of the world’s most volcanically unstable pairs of islands, Java and Sumatra.

Among Winchester’s most intriguing pages are those he devotes to Ancient Krakatoa, a much larger island that scientists suggest existed some sixty thousand years ago. The volcano may have exploded as many as eleven times since then, says Winchester. Possible dates for “recent” eruptions include the years 416, 535, and 1680, and Winchester discusses each possibility in turn. A Dutch print in the book may well represent the 1680 eruption, although the evidence is tantalizing rather than conclusive.

Like a practiced writer of suspense, Winchester paces his story. He explores many byways and indulges in many asides, but these are preludes to his treatment of the great eruption of 1883. In a chapter titled “The Unchaining of the Gates of Hell” he records the first ominous tremors that would lead to the cataclysm. On May 10 a lighthouse keeper on Java noted that his structure “suddenly seemed to shift on its foundations. The sea outside whitened, appeared to freeze briefly . . . , became uncannily smooth like a mirror, shivered slightly, and then returned to its usual sickly swell.”

The phenomenon repeated itself more strongly five days later and was felt in Sumatra as well. Ships sailing through the narrow Sunda Strait noted a great column of smoke rising from Krakatoa, followed later by falls of dust and ash. The setting sun resembled a “silver ball,” and observers reported that the morning sky was green. A Dutch couple in the capital city of Batavia (now Jakarta) on Java recounted how one Sunday morning a Delft dinner plate fell from the table. Doors rattled, and a low, rumbling sound was heard. The measuring instruments at the colony’s observatory (for the plate had belonged to the wife of the observatory’s director, who hurried to investigate) began “ticking and trembling violently.”

The first massive explosion came at 1:06 p.m. on August 26. The sea, said observers, jumped about chaotically. An enormous cloud—first of white steam, then of black smoke—rose swiftly from the island. Those aboard a ship anchored at Batavia estimated that it had reached a height of seventeen miles by mid-afternoon and noted the electrical displays that played about it. Those so unfortunate as to be living nearby found themselves engulfed in the cloud and could not see their own hands at midday. Sand and pumice, still warm to the touch, rained from the air, which itself seemed saturated with static electricity.

After that, said an observer in Java, “everything became worse.” Explosions of varying intensity continued through the evening and night, although the difference between day and night was lost to those engulfed in the disaster. Barometer readings rose and fell, and the temperature plummeted. Then at 10:02 a.m. on Monday, August 27, Krakatoa erupted in one final, unimaginable blast. The column of smoke and debris that had been hurled seventeen miles into the sky now reached, it is estimated, a height of twenty-four miles. Six cubic miles of dirt and rock and lava had been blasted into the air, leaving only fragments of land ringing the site. Buildings five hundred miles away shook on their foundations, and the eruption was heard nearly three thousand miles away on the island of Rodriguez in the Indian Ocean. The shock waves produced by the blast circled the earth seven times.

Most of the 36,417 people immediately killed by the disaster died as a result of tsunamis, great waves thrown up by the volcano. Tsunamis can travel at extraordinary speeds, but those that struck the shores of nearby islands were moving at only about sixty miles per hour. Waves eventually reached the incredible height of one hundred feet. A pilot in a nearby harbor saw something incredible, a “low range of hills rising out of the water,” only to realize that he was witnessing an enormous wave. A Dutch gunboat was stranded a mile and a half inland. In the aftermath of the explosions, only those who could flee quickly to higher ground survived.

While Winchester gives the eruption of Krakatoa its due, he also pauses along the way to explore myriad intriguing byways. His thorough, if informal, discussion of plate tectonics is likely to be as much as the lay reader cares to know about the subject. He even includes a brief account of his two-month trip to the east coast of Greenland as part of an expedition that produced clear evidence of continental drift. A seeming polymath, he discusses Roman scientist and author Pliny the Elder, the early days of the spice trade, the origin of modern capitalism in the Dutch East Indian company, the Papal Donation of 1493 (which divided the non-European world between the Spanish and the Portuguese), and finds time along the way to touch upon a possible origin for bantam chickens and Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh’s fondness for bridges. Winchester is fond of such unusual words as “conurbation” and delves into the etymologies of such common words as “encyclopedia” and “grocer.”

Thanks to Krakatoa’s erupting soon after the establishment of underwater cables linking the world’s once-far corners, the event was soon known to tens of thousands of readers. (A more remarkable coincidence, which Winchester clearly relishes, is that gutta-percha, the material used to waterproof those cables, is harvested from trees growing in the same part of the world as the great volcano.) The news agency Reuters, whose colorful history Winchester sketches, was particularly aggressive in handling the story.

Facts and figures make up much of Winchester’s story, but some of his assertions are more conjectural. He successfully links anti-Dutch violence among the region’s Muslim inhabitants to the eruption, which was interpreted by many as a sign of divine displeasure with the Western interlopers. Winchester’s suggestion, however, that the terrorist bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali in 2002 are a “haunting echo” of earlier events seems a stretch. Complex events demand equally complex explanations.

Winchester’s “Recommendations for (and in One Case, Against) Further Reading and Viewing” are on a delightful par with the rest of his book. Here he generously acknowledges many of his printed sources, as well as drubbing the ignominious motion picture Krakatoa: East of Java (1969). As Winchester’s readers know, Krakatoa is west of Java.

Winchester frames his book with accounts of his own observations of and visits to Anak Krakatoa, a small island that first broke the surface of the Sunda Strait in 1927 and has been growing ever since. In the quarter of a century that elapsed between his observations, the young island (whose name means “the child of Krakatoa”) had swollen five hundred feet in height. As his discussion of Ancient Krakatoa and his modest observations of Anak Krakatoa make clear, the volcano will—probably at some distant date—explode again.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 11 (February 1, 2003): 955.

Contemporary Review 283, no. 1655 (December, 2003): 382.

Discover 24, no. 5 (May, 2003): 80.

The Economist 366, no. 8317 (May 29, 2003): 75-76.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 3 (February 1, 2003): 220-221.

Library Journal 128, no. 6 (April 1, 2003): 125.

The New York Times Book Review, April 20, 2003, p. 9.

The New York Times Book Review, June 1, 2003, p. 23.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 10 (March 10, 2003): 65.

The Spectator 292 (June 7, 2003): 44.

Time 161, no. 19 (May 12, 2003): 79.

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