Blowing Up The Planet
The deranged despots of North Korea and a mentally disturbed American president aren’t all we have to worry about; last week another Icelandic volcano threatened to detonate, surrendering us to a further three months of no-fly zones – luckily, it didn’t happen. But it reminded me about an earlier cataclysmic event in world history. In 1883, to be precise.
Let’s dispense with that annoying film fact first. You’re right, the makers were wrong; Krakatoa is West of Java, not East. Krakatoa has grown rapidly in the quarter century – the single proper noun is still enough to conjure the apocalypse.
It was the fifth biggest explosion in our planet’s history, but details of the other four eruptions are lost to antiquity. Further, this one occurred after a great leap forward in communications technology, so that the entire world was quick to learn of the disaster, courtesy of Samuel Morse, and the wonderfully titled India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph Works company.
It would have learned, anyway; Krakatoa lowered the global temperature and changed the appearance of the sky over Chelsea. The volcano had been grumbling for ninety nine days. Its eruption lasted for twenty one hours, climaxing in an immense explosion at two minutes past ten on a Monday morning. The earth moved, leading to the ‘unchaining of the gates of hell’.
Java existed at the heart of the Asian spice trade, the West having developed a great taste for pepper, clove and nutmeg. The Dutch wrested trade routes from the grip of the Portugese and set up shop in Batavia, running their company, VOC, with cripplingly high taxes and a religious severity at odds with the islanders’ unorthodox, amiable version of Islam. This part of colonial South-East Asia passed its time in the planning of dances, horse races and formal dinner parties, typically indulging in the complex social rituals that surrounded the Governor-General and the families under his jurisdiction. As Krakatoa’s rumblings became a part of daily life, the dances continued at the elegant Concordia Club, with its centrepiece fountain that spouted eau de Cologne, and the circus arrived in town with a hundred acts including a cannonball catcher, twenty Arabian horses, a clowns’ cricket team, and an elephant that went berserk in a hotel room, possibly because it sensed volcanic vibrations.
For days, the sea had been behaving strangely, its wave patterns broken or non-existent, as if a depth-charge had been detonated. On the morning of August 27th, four explosions of increasing size shattered the morning air, and the last was large enough to remove the mountain from the world map. Most volcanoes incinerate their victims with incandescent gases, but Krakatoa’s people mainly died as the result of drowning when immense sea-waves swept the islands. Altogether 36,000 were lost to sea-waves and toxic clouds. Burning pumice rained on ships, tsunamis raced inland, skies turned green and were filled with dense fiery ash, creating carmine sunsets that poets felt moved to immortalise. The finest volcanic particles made it into the stratosphere. Krakatoa hurled material thirty miles into the air.
The British, who manufactured most of the area’s measuring instruments, took charge of official reportage, while the occupying Dutch brought aid with calm efficiency, but no-one could have foreseen the rebellion of ruined Indonesians who interpreted the disaster as a sign of Judgement Day and a time for fundamentalism. Mullahs and local religious teachers stirred up anger, with hate-mail sent from Arabia itself, then under the orthodox rule of the Ottoman Turks. Having survived the eruption, European settlers were hacked down and dragged through the streets in a now-forgotten peasants’ revolt. Finally, the cycle was completed by nature, as a wealth of flora and fauna returned to the shattered coastlines in a reassertion of biological equilibrium.
Simon Winchester wrote a terrific book on the subject. Also, there’s an account of the eruption of St. Pierre in Martinique called The Day Their World Ended that foregrounds the startling heroism and cowardice of the town’s residents, revealing a deeply human aspect to such tragedies.