In these parts, when we think volcano, we recall Mount St. Helens and that unforgettable Sunday morning of May 18, 1980. But as Simon Winchester proves in his new book Krakatoa, St. Helens was something of a piker. About 100 years earlier, halfway across the world, the island volcano of Krakatoa erupted -- actually, it blew itself to smithereens.
The centerpiece of the book is the Aug. 27, 1883, explosion of the island in the straight separating Sumatra from Java, and it's terrifying. As with most volcanoes, the eruption is the least of your worries. In Mount St. Helens' case, massive mudslides wreaked havoc; Krakatoa sent tsunamis in all directions, killing more than 35,000 people along the shores. One wave measured 135 feet high. The tiny remains of the island traveled the earth's atmosphere for years -- a boon for landscape painters looking for gaudy skies. One particular sunset the following November was so unreal that the city of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., dispatched its fire department to put out a patch of sky.
But Winchester, a geologist by training, takes his time getting to the cataclysm, and his discussion of the VOC (the Dutch East Indian Company), which had set up shop in the vicinity, is particularly compelling. The company was the first publicly traded company in the world, and also the first to have a corporate logo. Less compelling, however, is Winchester's side trip to Greenland, where he gathered ice core samples in the 1960s, and his discussion about how Krakatoa may have helped Islam rise in Indonesia, which seems a bit of a stretch.
Winchester does offer one unique insight about how Krakatoa was the world's first commonly experienced disaster. International telegraph cables had just been laid in the oceans, and the news of Krakatoa spread around the world in hours, not days or weeks. As a result, "the world was now suddenly seen to be much more than an immense collection of unrelated peoples and isolated happenings," he writes.
Krakatoa is also proof of the planet's relentlessness. Only 40 years after the eruption, the nearest remaining island, which had been laid to waste, had already regenerated some 621 species of animals. In 1927, an island rose on the spot Krakatoa once loomed over; it has grown 20 feet taller by the year. The volcano will blow again, however, writes Winchester, adding that "Krakatoa is a stark reminder of the truth of Will Durant's famous aphorism 'Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.'"