Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 312

Simon Winchester’s historical study of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, a volcanic Indonesian island, touches on numerous diverse themes. Winchester stresses the complex intersection of geography, politics, and history to produce a massive natural disaster. Another key theme is the importance of understanding the scientific bases of such events in order to prepare for future eruptions and, he hopes, reduce loss of life. Winchester also includes the role of media in publicizing such disasters, both in sensationalizing and helping avert damage.

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Winchester set about analyzing the Krakatoa eruption because of its unusual magnitude but, even more so, its unusual fame. In part because of advances in communication in the late nineteenth century, people all over the world learned about the eruptions and related events, such as tsunamis, relatively soon. A remote speck on the map gained overnight fame, as people on the other side of the globe learned that thousands had perished. Winchester also shows how scientific developments only a few years earlier anticipated such an eruption. He links major figures in science, such as Alfred Wallace, to now-accepted, influential concepts such as plate tectonics, which Wallace’s biogeographical research helped Alfred Lothar Wegener to formulate.

Almost equal attention is given to the historical development of Indonesia, then the colonial Dutch East Indies, both in geographic and politic-economic terms. The crucial location of the islands that comprised the colony and their vital resources made them desirable territories. The fragility of the lands and the great potential hazards to the people were brought home by the massive damage that the eruption caused. The political effects are also discussed as indigenous peoples expressed their distrust of the foreign colonizers. Winchester delves into earlier probable eruptions, noting the severely limited ability to measure them without sophisticated instruments and to disseminate information about them in the years before the links enabled by laying the underground cables.

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