KRAKATOA: THE DAY THE WORLD EXPLODED,
AUGUST 27, 1883
By Simon Winchester
On August 27, 1883 the volcanic island of Krakatoa blew itself into pieces,
making a noise that was clearly heard almost three thousand miles away, which is
still the greatest distance ever recorded for unamplified and electrically
unenhanced natural sound. Shock waves from the explosion, measured by barograph,
traveled around the earth seven times. Giant waves, or tsunami, triggered by the
eruption killed over 30,000 people, and the effect on tides was registered as
far away as the coast of France.
Simon Winchester, a geologist by training, has written not so much an account
of this "day the world exploded" as a biography of the island of
Krakatoa itself: its birth, death and rebirth. As in books like The Professor
and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World he does a great job
describing the historical and intellectual context. In his hands the story of
Krakatoa becomes, among other things, a story of the discovery of evolution and
plate tectonics, the laying of the first submarine telegraph cables, and the
political and religious development of modern Indonesia.
But the star of the show is the volcano, whose name became "in one awful
ear-splitting moment a synonym for cataclysm, paroxysm, death, and
disaster." How that name entered the English language is a story in itself.
The local form of the name is usually given as Krakatau, the origin and meaning
of which is a mystery. At the time of the explosion, the spelling in an
eyewitness report describing the eruption of "Krakatan" was changed by
London newspaper editors to "Krakatowa." It is a variation of this
that has stuck ever since.
Krakatoa is a book with greater sweep than Winchesterís previous
bestsellers, ranging from the mists of geologic time to a description of the
authorís recent visit to Anak Krakatoa, the smoldering "son of Krakatoa"
that is currently rising out of its parentís ruin at the rate of about five
inches a week. As usual, Winchester has a knack for presenting the personalities
behind what can seem like rather dry intellectual debates. This extends to his
making the island itself, in its various manifestations, a character with its
own identity as well as an illustration of the crucible of life in operation. He
is on shakier ground when dealing with political subjects, and his chapter on
the eruption of Krakatoa as a political catalyst leading to an upsurge in
Islamic fundamentalism and nationalism in Indonesia is unpersuasive.
While the account of the eruption and its aftermath is the headline,
blockbuster stuff, it is as a chronicle of natural history and the adventures of
the human mind in understanding and coming to grips with that history that the
book really makes its mark.
Review first published May 10, 2003.