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.

12 comments on “Blowing Up The Planet”

  1. Chris Webb says:

    “changed the appearance of the sky over Chelsea”

    Didn’t get as far as Fulham then? Phew…

  2. Jo W says:

    North Korea,Trump and vocanoes?

  3. Martin Tolley says:

    If we are going to go, let us go with a rousing uplifting song guaranteed to cheer us up

  4. Peter Dixon says:

    The Victorians really knew how to do disasters.Titanic, Hartley Pit Disaster (204 lost), charge of the Light Brigade, Opium Wars – you’ve got to hand it to them. Then they set up the conditions for WW1.

  5. Jason Sebastian says:

    The Titanic disaster belongs to the Edwardian era. I know everyone loves to stretch out the “Victorian era”, but eleven years after the Queen’s death is stretching it far too long.

  6. Bill says:

    The curving shore of the Bay of Naples describes ancient foothills of some titanic mountain that blew up skillions of years ago. The American west holds evidence of all sorts of similar disasters.

    The underlying causes of all are still rumbling under our feet. A goodly portion of the sands of Saudi Arabia cover a caldera of immense proportions.

    You Brits are a bit luckier. You really aren’t in an earthquake zone. The last volcanic eruption in your isles was eons ago, when Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh last exploded, who knows when. I guess some Scottish scientist could say.

    But- just think about it. There is a volcano in the Canary Islands that will one day – soon- wipe out the American Eastern seaboard- and by that, I mean the North American and a good deal of the South American seaboard. And a good deal of European coastline.




  7. Helen Martin says:

    Martin Tolley, that was the absolutely perfect song because that was performed under similar circumstances and Peter Dixon you’ve certainly got that right. Not that we’ve done that much better since then – the starvation of the Ukraine and all those “dissidents” who suffered under Stalin and Hitler, the Second War itself, the horrible Tutsi etc. war in Africa and the Iraq/Iran War which led on to the Afghanistan War.

  8. Jan says:

    The paintings of that sky with (I remember rightly) a touch of before and after the mega eruption are extraordinary. The deep red sunsets caused by the gasses released into the atmosphere. (Which apparently tinged the sky into a pale greenish shade over Newfoundland and Northern Canada.) Don’t they reckon the impressionist painters early works also could reflect the amazing colours of the sky at about the time. I’m probably rambling now. As per usual.

  9. Jan says:

    Were the paintings done in Ranelagh Gardens, near Chelsea Hospital? Or Kensington Gardens? Or somewhere else entirely? I really can’t remember I should know, used to know, minds going.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    I remember seeing a program about events showing up in paintings, starting with Halley’s comet in the embroidery of William-the-Conqueror-1066 and going on through those sunsets, but I don’t remember where they were painted either. The smoke from fires hundreds of kilometres away is giving us copper coloured light in the day time and incredible sunsets at night. Everyone is taking photos of the red moon but I wonder if anyone is doing art that refers to it.

  11. Jan says:

    That’s interesting Helen about the Copper coloured light. The sunsets must be fantastic.
    Are you having a very warm summer? It does sound very much like it!

    Strange over here in Europe southern Europe is very, very hot dangerously so in some places. Drought in Italy. The Greek mainland + islands Sicily and Malta heading up towards 40 degrees C. However northern Europe including UK unseasonably wet and getting cooler! Something to do with the Gulf stream heading south. Along with what looked like was going to be a smashing summer in early July. So glad I got away for a few days in July when even the Lake District (a place famous for rain. Those lakes need to be kept topped up) was very warm and sunny.

    Yes Halley’s comet does show up on the Bayeux Tapestry. I ‘ll have to research the paintings which do feature sunsets themselves which were made very special by the eruption and the smoke and gasses released into the atmosphere. Might be Hyde Park. Wonder if the impressionist pictures of London were inspired by the atmospheric pollution?

  12. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, we’ve been a month without any measurable rain and the temperature has been 30 deg, quite hot for us. The sunsets are sheets of colour because there are no clouds to add variety. We’re looking for a shift this weekend and hoping for onshore winds to send the smoke back whence it came.
    There’s one thing about the Impressionist paintings – it’s a matter of checking date, really, I suppose. Just looked up a book which should have it but it has such a useless index and the material isn’t organised helpfully.

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