Krakatoa

Indonesia’s Krakatoa volcano erupted on this day in 1883, killing 40,000 (perhaps many more) in elemental ways: superheated gas, molten rock, and tsunami. Simon Winchester’s 2003 bestseller, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, takes the long view, from prehistoric evidence of earlier eruptions to his own late-twentieth-century trips to the region, from which he came away impressed by how “the world, however badly it has been wounded, picks itself up, continues to unfold its magic and its marvels, and sets itself back on its endless trail of evolutionary progress yet again.” But the long view of Krakatoa only intensifies the impact of the short view, the day in 1883 when the effusions that had been simmering and spouting for months reached their “paroxysmal phase.” The sky over all of southern Sumatra darkened; ships reported that they were being covered in heavy ash, or that it was raining pumice stone; the barometer rose and fell a half inch every minute, and the temperature dropped fifteen degrees Fahrenheit over the next four hours. “And then finally,” writes Winchester, “came the culminating, terrifying majesty of it all”:

Explosions like a battery of guns are heard across in Telok Betong…. The lighthouse at Fourth Point, just to the south of Anjer, is hit by a vast wave and destroyed, ripped off at its base…. An immense wave then leaves Krakatoa at almost exactly 10:00 A.M.—and then, two minutes later, according to all the instruments that record it, came the fourth and greatest explosion of them all, a detonation that was heard thousands of miles away and that is still said to be the most violent explosion ever recorded and experienced by modern man. The cloud of gas and white-hot pumice, fire, and smoke is believed to have risen—been hurled, more probably, blasted as though from a gigantic cannon—as many as twenty-four miles into the air….

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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