Krakatoa by Simon Winchester
Long before there was 24/7 cable channels or the internet, there was the telegraph: an invention that would forever change how the world worked. One of the first stories to be passed via this invention was something that happened across the world in a chain of islands known as Indonesia.
Krakatoa tells the story of that fateful time in August of 1883 when a little known volcanic island roared to life and made everyone take notice. The book takes a sweeping view of the event both in place and time, from the history of the geology around the area to an examination of the culture of Indonesia at the time. This leads to some unfortunate conclusions towards the end of the book, but it is a comparatively minor annoyance compared to the story that Simon Winchester has managed to weave around the historic event.
He starts with a description of the Indonesian islands: Sumatra, Java, and Borneo, and their discovery by the English and Dutch in the early 1600s and what this meant to the culture and most importantly the religion of the area. Next, he discusses the scientist Alfred Russell Wallace, who was essentially doing everything that Charles Darwin was doing, only in the islands around Maluku. It is said that while Darwin was on the same track as Wallace, it took Wallace's paper (which Wallace had actually asked Darwin to forward to someone) to actually provide the final idea that Darwin's theory actually coalesced around.
Another scientific theory that came around (although much later) was that of continental drift and therefore plate tectonics. The notion that the continents actually float on seas of magma around the earth is not as old as one may think; the actual evidence that confirmed the theory was only found in the late 1950s. The Circle of Fire, where the continental plates are actually meeting, is where Krakatoa was born and where it eventually died in one of the greatest disasters in modern history.
Volcanic eruptions are not common. While we may be used to seeing eruptions out of the Hawaiian volcanoes from time to time, the type of eruption that Krakatoa went through, and on a much smaller scale, Mt. St. Helens in 1980, is relatively rare. Krakatoa covers other eruptions in the past, and how modern scientific techniques are coming into play in determining what those eruptions were and how they compared to the historic eruption of 1883.
Then, we get to that event itself. There's a great deal of local color and news thrown into the mix to better give the reader a feel of what was going on both in the minds of the natives that had lived under the volcano for generations, and the English and Dutch who had essentially taken over the governance of these people's lives. Leading up from the months before the eruption, it details the steady growth of the volcano's violence, and the way the news spread across the seas.
Finally, in the space of some 20 hours, Krakatoa self-destructs in a series of awe-inspiring explosions, one of them regarded as the loudest sound ever heard. The great explosions caused massive tsunami that killed over 36,000 people and devastated the entire island chain.
Vast rafts of ash, pumice, and skeletons of both humans and animals would float on the seas for months afterwards, some traveling hundreds of miles from their origin. To put the explosion in perspective, the eruption is regarded as 10 times the size of the Mt. St. Helens eruption, with 50 times the amount of material ejected.
Mr. Winchester describes it all, from the viewpoints of the people caught out at sea to the ones in the adjacent islands lucky enough to survive both the explosion and the enormous waves that followed. It is a fascinating account of both survival and science, as the effects of the great eruption are described in the following chapter. Krakatoa was one of the first world-wide events. The book details its effects both on the politics of the empires that held reign over the region to the art inspired for years afterwards by the magnificent sunsets produced by particulate ash from the eruption.
A chapter follows which describes the flurry of scientific activity that occurred after the eruption as well as the rebellion that took place soon after against the British and Dutch rule. Then, in the modern day, the birth of the "son of Krakatoa" is described. The island, known as Anak Krakatau, is still very active today. Finally, the author takes a trip to the island itself, and meets a hungry monitor lizard that is quickly given a chicken sandwich!
Krakatoa is a fascinating read, filled with local color as well as a sense of otherworldly wonder as to how such an event must have seemed to the local population as well as the people from far away lands stationed there. It is too bad that in his epilogue, the author chooses to connect the events of 1883, the recent Southeast Asian tsunami, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquakes with the rise of fundamentalism and the actions of the current administration.
While the author is free to put forth his opinion in whatever manner he sees fit, it is out of place in a book such as this, and it was unfortunate that it was included (the piece originally appeared in an English newspaper soon after the 2005 tsunamis). However, it does not detract from what is a fascinating and extremely well written piece of an exciting time in history. Krakatoa is a four-star book, and is highly recommended. Look for Krakatoa through this Amazon.com link