Krakatoa – The Day The World Exploded’ by Simon Winchester (2003) Penguin

Book review by Ross Hunter

Just before Christmas 2018, Indonesia suffered yet another disaster when a tsunami struck S Sumatra and W Java, killing ~400. The cause was very much a case of history repeating itself. ‘Anak’ means ‘Son of’ in Bahasa Indonesia. The volcanic island Anak Krakatoa erupted, exploded and collapsed into the Sunda Straights, triggering the lethal tidal wave.

Mr Winchester is a graduate geologist, professional journalist and historian. He uses his knowledge and experiences to create an all-encompassing and gripping account not just of the cataclysm and its causes, but also the social and political consequences. If some of the simple volcanology is relatively well known, the sections on the effects on Indonesia, the then Dutch colonial rule and the global consequences are fresh and novel. Natural disasters are both unpredictable and recurrent, so the more we know about them the better.

The mechanisms of major volcanic events have been known only for a few decades. Plate tectonics is now the paradigm in schools. Why some volcanoes are relatively harmless (Iceland, Hawaii) while others are immensely destructive (the Krakatoa family, Vesuvius, Mt St Helens) requires in-depth explanation. At the deep ocean trenches, mud and crucially water is dragged down into the liquid rocks. Superheated steam fuels the massive explosions. In turn, volcanoes and earthquakes shake the oceans, and often the resulting tsunami cause more loss of life than the trigger event. Sections on the noise of the bang, the sea waves and pressure waves circling the planet and the desperate struggles around the coasts are compulsive. The chapters on the climatological and biogeographical effects are fascinating, and even more so his analysis of the crippling effects on colonial rule, and its effects on the resurgence of political Islam. Wholly relevant to our day. By 1883, world time was becoming standardised, and the telegraph could transmit news almost immediately: Krakatoa 1883 was the world’s first global natural disaster. It still has much to teach us. Simon Winchester’s book covers the ground admirably.

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