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.
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.
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...
(The entire section is 2,052 words.)