SIMON WICHESTER’S KRAKATOA: EVIDENCE PRESENTED
Winchester’s Krakatoa is a complete and graphic description of an event that went to shape the history of the indies- the explosion of what many term as the most dangerous volcano on earth, the Krakatoa. The legendary explosion of 1883 took place in the coast of Java. Perhaps, as indicated by Nardo and McGovern (1990) and Graves (2009) most notable about this catastrophe was that it was not just a singular event but rather a combination of events. The explosion itself was followed by the tsunami which killed more than 40,000 people. As with many events the catastrophe indeed affected the history of the entire region as well as large portions of the world.
The effects of the catastrophe were felt as far as USA and even France. In fact, Winchester claims that the aftershocks of the eruption could be felt all the way in Australia. The effects went beyond the physical destruction; they went even into political arenas. The eruption is credited for brining an anti-western movement which took root among the Muslims in the region. The dust from the explosion went on to affect the health of many and cause one of the worst forms of air pollution in the world today.
Winchester delves into the history of the region and provides a historical perspective on the catastrophe that destroyed an entire island. He uses critical evidence to demonstrate that indeed what could have been an isolated event became a chain of events with far reaching consequences beyond the island and even surrounding islands. There have been critiques who have argued that the book is indeed a dramatization of events, however, the author called upon his knowledge and skills piecing together the geology as well as history and providing an entirely new perspective on the event.
Witness accounts of the eruption
This is the first piece of evidence that is quoted and relied upon by Winchester. The author uses the report to show that indeed there was awareness that such an event indeed took place. Bal an explorer wrote a report on the experiences of the crew. The crew in 1883 was approaching what they thought to be a barren and bare island. While exploring the island, the ship docked and the crew spent sometime there. During this time, the crew did experience what the captain thought to be an earthquake followed by some enormous explosion. This Winchester (2003), says could be evidence that the island in itself was already exploding. It is to be recalled that a similar explosion occurred almost two centuries later. Explosions, the kind described in the book do not just occur without showing previous signs. The symptoms that such an events is in the horizon can be seen through simple geology. In 1681, when the crew of a ship stopped the island was unoccupied. It seems that in the next two centuries, people unaware of the danger presented by the island settled in this region.
The report not only speaks of the earthquake, the crew also smelled what they presumed to be sulphur after the explosion. Seismologists have argued that before an explosion of any kind, people are able to experience the smell of rotten eggs that is sulphur in the area. In some cases, the smell continues beyond and can be found even years after the explosion. The smell of sulphur would indicate fault lines and therefore the presence of a volcano. Presence of the smell and pumice stones floating around the island convinced geologists and historians that the crew were witnesses to the eruption. The captain of the ship indicated that the crew indeed saw smoke and some debris coming from the island.
Traveler’s accounts and messages from sea
According to Winchester, the explosion though widely forgotten and often considered to be a controversial event was indeed the first event to be covered worldwide. Travelers and other people at sea sent out messages to loved ones and superiors indicating and describing the catastrophe in detail. By 1883, the travelers were connected even from far off continents and could indeed communicate easily. There are those whose curiosity drove them to investigate the aftermath of the catastrophe and for these individuals, the accounts were much more precise and intriguing. However, it is important and unique to note that even with all the communication, the eruption did not receive historical recognition that cannot be disputed.
In his research at the oxford university, Winchester tries to understand how geologists in 1883 could explain the explosion. He traces reports as far as 1881, which showed evidence of an unstable region. He follows the communication of ship captains who sailed close to or within the region during this period. Each of them describes a devastation beyond all imagination, a tragedy where few if any actually survived. For Mathews et al (1989), they describe a complete destruction of an island, its people as if it never existed. All in all, the author uses these telegraphs and communication as evidence of what people saw and felt in 1883.
Debris and evidence of destruction
A ship captain sailing into the area weeks after the explosion described the presence of debris and rotting human flesh which they encountered. From his encounter estimates on the loss can be made in the thousands of lives, (Furgang 2001). According to the Samoa captain, the ship sailed for 10days in a region that was completely infested with dead bodies that were already rotting. The bodies were not in groups of one or even 10 but rather in groups of 50-100 individuals who had been thrown off the island together and burnt or drowned together. According to the captain one could see the terror of what they had endured in their faces.
Among the bodies were those of white sailors leading to the belief that some ships close to the region even miles way were drowned by the eruption. The exact number of those who perished cannot be estimated as many more were not found, some died within the island and even more travelers in the sea perished and were never accounted for. However, from the evidence of debris one can conclude that many lives were lost, (Zimmerman and Winchester 2008).
The explosion was so strong that some bodies went as far as the African coast miles away. Pumice stones washed up and floated for years along the coast and there was evidence of burnt bodies for years after the explosion. Many of those who encountered the debris could only describe it as field of remains. This is what Baillie (2009) endeavors to describe, the length of catastrophe, the destruction and loss of human lives that witnesses encountered during this time. Since there was no reliable means of recording the events, one can only rely on the encounters given by witnesses.
Winchester’s review of the volcanoes provides a new perspective into the 19th century global connectedness. Previous authors have focused on the geology, features and other aspects f the explosion. Some have gone so far as to prove that the volcano did indeed take place. However, none has considered researching what the volcanoes meant for the global world. This, according to Winchester is the first time that people from across orders got together not just to trade or share culture but to grieve and assess the impact of the disaster that had befallen the island.
A small island in the corner of the world succeeded in bringing together people that had not met. While the Australians experienced small quakes and fog from the explosion, the Africans across the globe met with washed up bodies and debris. Though this tragedy took place in a small island, each continent experienced the effects. The island itself disappeared completely but the effects lived on for many years. It is indeed estimated that the global temperatures raised at least a centigrade following the explosion. The vent in itself as described and elaborated by Winchester is quite iconic. However, from his perspective the reader is not just exposed to the event, the reader gets an insight into the explanations put forwards by the geologists and scientists at the time. They can then compare what they said with what modern technology has proven. The big question of course being, because a new younger version of Krakatoa, Anak Krakatoa (child of Krakatoa) is growing with each year; is the world to expect a similar catastrophe and if do can this be prevented. According to the perspective presented by Winchester it is possible that indeed history will repeat itself perhaps in another century.
Baillie, Allan. Krakatoa Lighthouse. Camberwell, Vic: Penguin, 2009
Furgang, Kathy. Krakatoa: History’s Loudest Volcano. New York: PowerKids Press, 2001
Graves, Sue. Krakatoa. London: Rising Stars, 2009.
Matthews, Rupert, Tony Smith, and Peter Bull. The Eruption of Krakatoa. New York: Bookwright Press, 1989.
Nardo, Don, and Brian McGovern. Krakatoa. San Diego, Calif: Lucent Books, 1990.
Winchester, Simon. Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883. New York: Harper-Collins, 2003
Zimmerman, Dwight J, and Simon Winchester. The Day the World Exploded: The Earthshaking Catastrophe at Krakatoa. New York: Collins, 2008.