Krakatoa (Review)

Krakatoa (Review)

I knew this story originally from my childhood, having seen the movie Krakatoa, East of Java (which confused me in this book, and I later verified, it’s actually located WEST of Java).Which shows what sort of movie this was.

Either direction, the namesake volcano is amazing enough, as Simon Winchester points out in his book on the subject. You see, Krakatoa was the volcano which loomed over a dense shipping strait, quite close to Dutch Batavia, and which erupted in 1883, Erupted? No, more like exploded. Even that’s not good enough. Rather, it Nuked. And even that’s not quite suitable.

When Krakatoa blew, it threw itself literally off the map. The explosion was heard 3000 miles away (think about a blast in San Francisco so powerful that people in New York hear it). It was so massive that the wave it created was recorded as far as England, and the shock wave (registered on barometers) went around the world twelve times. The ash cloud was such that for years afterwards, sunsets were lurid and crop yields were reduced. Yeah, that big.

I rather liked this book. Winchester has a wry sense of humor that pops up in his footnotes as he recounts the events of the eruption, and those which followed (the Islamic revolt across the region, and the slow return of life ot the island). He even makes describing how the world’s internal circulation works (you’ll never look at the ground the same way again).

However, he falls apart a little for his actual retelling of the event. Without a detailed map, without access to the geography, things get a little mixed up concerning who is where and what is destroyed. I really didn’t get a sense of scale. Yes, I knew that a two massive waves were released, I knew that a steamship was carried a mile and a half inland (and let’s not think about what happened to the twenty-four people aboard). But for pages, it was ash falls, waves, and all that with no sense of fatalities. Then, quite in passing, he mentions that 35,000 people died, mostly in low-lying villages along the straits, which comes as a bit of a shock. There was no sense of it during the events, just in the tally that comes in the end.

Still, it’s a stunning recounting of the historical violence that comes from thinking the world is a stable unchanging place and finding it is not. In a way, it reminds me of Pompey, a more fictional account of the horrific deaths that occured to a Roman city located literally on the doorstep of Hell. All in all, Krakatoa is a good read. Just bring a map from 1883.