Simon Winchester's book, Atlantic really wowed me last year. I was very smitten with his very accessible style of writing which didn't bore the pants off me when it so easily could have done. So I went searching for something else by him and chose this:
The first thing to get out of your head, and it's surprisingly difficult, is that the island is 'east of Java', as the film assured us in 1968, those of us who are that long in the tooth I mean. It's not. It is in fact 'west' of Java, in the Sunda Strait between Java and the island of Sumatra. And of course, as many of us are aware these days, it is only one of many volcanoes smack on top of the Pacific Ocean's 'Ring of Fire'.
The book begins with Simon Winchester describing how he visted the island group in the 1970s and when he went back 25 years later was shocked to discover that Krakatoa, or what was left of it, is now 500ft taller and is growing at the rate of 20 inches a month. I don't know about anyone else but I find that slightly concerning...
There's a long history of colonialisation in the area. It was under the Portuguese for a while until the Dutch snatched it from them and it became The Dutch East Indies. So it was under the Dutch when, on the 27th. August 1883, Krakatoa destroyed itself. It's said that it was and remains the loudest sound ever to be heard by mankind. Rodrigues Island, 2,968 miles to the west in the Indian ocean, was the farthest point at which the explosion was heard. Again, a record. 36,000 people perished, mostly killed by the following tsunamis. Tsunamis so powerful they were actually detected in the English Channel. Barographs recorded the shockwaves which travelled around the Earth 'seven' times and lasted for 15 days. 13% of the Earth's surface vibrated. And after all that, it was only the 5th. largest volcanic explosion - 'only' being a relative term - in known history. Although there seems to be some dispute about this, as in all things I suppose, Wiki lists it as the 2nd. biggest.
I should say that this is not just a book about the eruption of Krakatoa. The author discusses everything and anything even vaguely to do with it. So there's much about the history of the area, the geology, the geography, and the flora and fauna. Because it was in that area that naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, discovered what came to be called The Wallace Line and the science of plate techtonics eventually came into being... but not until 1965, years after his death. Who would have thought that I would find the explanation for plate techtonics so rivetting. I vaguely knew about it of course but not that it was subduction zones where most volcanoes are and that that was what caused Krakatoa, and many other volcanoes, to go off so spectacularly.
I like this quote from Will Durrant:
'Civilisation exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice'.
I risk being boring about this book so I'll stop and just say I thought it was brilliant. So many different subjects covered, not in a dry and boring manner, but in an accessible and interesting way. I'm very impressed with Simon Winchester's non-fiction. He has a lot of other books to choose from and choose I will. There's one about The Pacific Ocean, the San Fransisco earthquake, dictionaries, The USA, and a new one called, Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World.
I shall be reading it.
And I'll leave you with this wonderful painting. It's by American artist, Frederic Church. It's said that he suspected Krakatoa would produce wonderful sunsets, (volcanic dust in the atmosphere) which indeed it did for years. So off he went to Canada and painted this in December 1883.
Sunset Over the Ice on Chaumont Bay, Lake Ontario. Gorgeous.