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Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

4.1 46
by Simon Winchester

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The legendary annihilation in 1883 of the volcanoisland of Krakatoa -- the name has since become a byword for cataclysmic disaster -- was followed by an immense tsunami that killed nearly forty thousand people. Beyond the purely physical horrors of an event that has only very recently been properly understood, the eruption changed the world in more ways than could


The legendary annihilation in 1883 of the volcanoisland of Krakatoa -- the name has since become a byword for cataclysmic disaster -- was followed by an immense tsunami that killed nearly forty thousand people. Beyond the purely physical horrors of an event that has only very recently been properly understood, the eruption changed the world in more ways than could possibly be imagined. Dust swirled round the planet for years, causing temperatures to plummet and sunsets to turn vivid with lurid and unsettling displays of light. Most significant of all -- in view of today's new political climate -- the eruption helped to trigger in Java a wave of murderous anti-Western militancy among fundamentalist Muslims: one of the first outbreaks of Islamic-inspired killings anywhere.

Editorial Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
“A real-life story bigger than any Hollywood blockbuster.”
New York Times
“Brilliant...One of the best books ever written about the history and significance of a natural disaster.”
Chicago Sun-Times
“Winchester...is noted for his ability to turn scholarly history into engrossing narrative.”
International Herald Tribune
“The rich and fascinating KRAKATOA confirms [Winchester’s] preeminence. Janet Maslin
The Economist
“Masterful build-up of literary and geological tension.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Winchester’s exceptional attention to detail never falters.”
Boston Sunday Globe
“Krakatoa is a pleasure from beginning to end.”
Daily News
“Winchester dramatically delivers...the book is absorbing...”
Baltimore Sun
“Winchester scores.” (byline Baltimore Sun, printed in Pittsburg Post-Gazette)
Washington Post Book World
“A good read.”
The Washington Post
Part history, scientific detective story and travelogue, with all the storytelling zeal of his bestselling The Map that Changed the World, Winchester's new book complements the more scholarly approach of earlier volumes on the subject. With an eye for the smallest detail (we learn that a Dutch scientist's wife lost an heirloom Delft dinner plate during one of Krakatoa's earlier rumblings) and a solid understanding of geology, Winchester's narrative culminates in an hour-by-hour account from the viewpoints of ship captains, a telegraph operator, a British consul and a Dutch colonial official. There are some problems in his coverage of events before and after the eruption, but this is a good read for anyone interested in Indonesia, geology or earthshaking catastrophes. — Valerie Jablow
The Los Angeles Times
Simon Winchester has in Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, written an exhaustive and often exciting account of the Krakatoa events. In particular, it is outstanding in describing the sequence of events from 1:06 p.m., the moment of the first great explosion, on Aug. 26, 1883, to the immediate aftermath of the climactic blast of 10:02 a.m. the following day. — Kenneth Reich
The New Yorker
When Hurricane Zoe hit the SOLOMON ISLANDS last December, it took several days before anyone could reach the most remote islands, Tikopia and Anuda, to assess the damage. But isolation this extreme was precisely what the former high-school teacher Will Randall sought on Randuvu, where he taught the islanders to raise chickens. Randall narrates his agrarian adventure in Solomon Time, during which he happily fell into a pace of life that he says makes "schedules and timetables become irrelevancies, arrangements, meetings, deadlines inconsequential."

The romance of the remote also seems to have infected Katherine Routledge, who, in 1914, became one of the first archeologists to investigate Easter Island. Among Stone Giants, Jo Anne Van Tilburg's biography of Routledge, tells how the island's statues provoked her to rapturous imaginings of the rituals that might have taken place there. Back in England, Routledge declined into schizophrenia -- a condition her family blamed on the influence of Angata, a mysterious native visionary.

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, Simon Winchester focuses on more physical dangers: the seismic events of August 27, 1883, when the Javanese island vanished in a volcanic eruption of almost unimaginable power. The explosion was heard as far away as Australia, and the tidal waves that followed killed some forty thousand people. Winchester, a geologist, looks at both the aftermath of the eruption and its geological inevitability. Apparently, the island over the volatile site, where one tectonic plate slides under another, explodes with relative regularity. Krakatoa's successor, which appeared on the site in 1930, is growing at a rate of twenty feet every year.

( Leo Carey)
The New York Times
Like its subject, Winchester's book is rife with superlatives. Here is his description of the giant wave that drowned Merak: ''This too was Krakatoa's most colossal wave, the biggest consequence of the biggest and final explosion. It was a wave so enormous and so powerful that it turned out to be the grimmest of grim reapers, the terrible climax to a long and deadly day.'' Krakatoa (the volcano) wasn't the largest or deadliest of recent Indonesian volcanic eruptions. That dubious distinction goes to Tambora, which erupted with more than twice the power of Krakatoa, killed 10,000 people outright and caused the death of another 82,000 by starvation and disease. Krakatoa (the book) is, also like its subject, deserving of superlatives: It is thrilling, comprehensive, literate, meticulously researched and scientifically accurate; it is one of the best books ever written about the history and significance of a natural disaster. — Richard Ellis
Krakatoa is volcanic.
USA Today
Building thrillerlike suspense, Winchester gives voice to firsthand accounts from scientists, ship captains and local observers of the buildup of volcanic activity that ended so spectacularly. He also presents the men who pieced together geological information, culminating in plate tectonics theory. If you've ever sat through a dry geology lecture, Winchester's human-oriented volcanology will grip you. — Ayesha Court
Eric Wargo
The 1883 volcanic eruption on the island of Krakatoa, near Java, was the most devastating disaster of its kind in history. It killed almost forty thousand people and made one of the loudest sounds ever heard (it was heard more than three thousand miles away—like an explosion in San Francisco being heard in Philadelphia. Airborne ash caused worldwide temperatures to plummet and produced brilliant pink sunsets for months. Once the dust cleared, the island itself, and its signature 2, 625-foot-high cone, had disappeared. Winchester, a former geologist and author of The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World, not only explains the subterranean forces that produced the volcano, but also charts its far-reaching social ramifications, including the first instances anywhere of anti-Western violence by Islamic fundamentalists (in this case, in the hard-hit Dutch East Indies. A lesser writer would have trouble juggling such diverse topics as the seventeenth-century pepper trade, nineteenth-century Islamic nationalism and the geological processes that cause continents to drift and collide, but Winchester uses the disaster, which became a worldwide media event, to incorporate these stories (and many others into one mightily fascinating book.
Publishers Weekly
An erudite, fascinating account by one of the foremost purveyors of contemporary nonfiction, this book chronicles the underlying causes, utter devastation and lasting effects of the cataclysmic 1883 eruption of the volcano island Krakatoa in what is now Indonesia. Winchester (The Professor and the Madman; The Map That Changed the World) once again demonstrates a keen knack for balancing rich and often rigorous historical detail with dramatic tension and storytelling. Rather than start with brimstone images of the fateful event itself, Winchester takes a broader approach, beginning with his own viewing of the now peaceful remains of the mountain for a second time in a span of 25 years-and being awed by how much it had grown in that time. This nod to the earth's ceaseless rejuvenation informs the entire project, and Winchester uses the first half of the text to carefully explain the discovery and methods of such geological theories as continental drift and plate tectonics. In this way, the vivid descriptions of Krakatoa's destruction that follow will resonate more completely with readers, who will come to appreciate the awesome powers that were churning beneath the surface before it gave way. And while Winchester graphically illustrates, through eyewitness reports and extant data, the human tragedy and captivating scientific aftershocks of the explosion, he is also clearly intrigued with how it was "a demonstration of the utterly confident way that 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." His investigations have produced a work that is relevant to scholars and intriguing to others, who will relish it footnotes and all. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In 1883, Krakatoa, the largest volcanic eruption in modern history, killed thousands, caused worldwide climactic changes, and induced massive political and social upheaval in Java. Noted science writer Winchester tackles this interesting subject in his usual eclectic and charming manner. Geology, history, biology, and politics all play a role. From 16th-century European merchant invaders to 19th-century evolutionary theorist Henry Wallace to 20th-century magnetic pole data from Greenland, the author has compiled and organized massive amounts of data. The result is a fascinating picture of the Krakatoa disaster, from causes to consequences. Competently read by the author (with an occasional chuckle in his voice), Krakatoa would be an excellent choice for moderate to large public library collections.-I. Pour-El, Des Moines Area Community Coll., Boone, IA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This expansive chronicle of a geologically unstable hot spot between the islands of Java and Sumatra, scene of the cataclysmic 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, conveys not only a wealth of scientific detail related to the event, but also addresses long-term ramifications for the social, political, economic, and religious fabric of the region. During the volcano's final 20 hours and 56 minutes, sounds from Krakatoa's eruption were heard 2968 miles away, and the air shock waves it created were recorded circling the globe seven times. Ultimately, the "six cubic miles of rock" that had been the island vanished. Winchester points out that Krakatoa was the first catastrophe to occur "after the establishment of a worldwide network of telegraph cables" that enabled news of the devastation to be transmitted with heretofore unheard of speed. Scientific investigations continue to this day, with particular watchfulness over Anak Krakatoa (literally, "son of Krakatoa"), an active volcanic island located in the same spot, which began forming in 1927-1930 and is growing in height at a rate of 20 feet per year. The author cuts a broad swath as he transitions among topics as diverse as plate tectonics, the 16th-century Dutch-colonial spice trade, and the seeds of radical Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia, but the telling is masterful and conscientious readers are rewarded by his elucidation of complex interrelationships.-Lynn Nutwell, Fairfax City Regional Library, VA Graphic Novels Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A vivid reconstruction of a volcanic explosion felt around the world--and a tale of curious twists it is. One of the most entertaining science-explainers at work today, Winchester (The Map That Changed the World, 2001, etc.) brings fine credentials to bear on writing the story of Krakatoa: both a former Asia correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and an Oxford-trained geologist, he has an eye for the local and global significance of that volcano’s cataclysmic eruption 120 years ago. Dotting his narrative with learned asides and digressions (including a lively account of a volcano-hunting field trip to Greenland in his student days), Winchester carefully builds a dramatic tale that begins with a few rumblings and ends with the end of the world as the Spice Islanders knew it. Like the volcano, his story takes its time in building force, but it steadily gathers strength while giving the reader a crash course in tectonic theory, continental drift, volcanism, and other elemental matters. Winchester seeds that story with all manner of curious actors, including a hapless fellow who, in one of the giant tsunamis generated by the eruption, "reportedly found himself being swept inland next to a crocodile: He clambered on to its back and hung on for grim death with his thumbs dug deep into the creature’s eye-sockets." Not only did the explosion lead to the erasure of the volcanic island of Krakatoa from the world map and kill nearly 40,000 people, Winchester writes, but it was also felt halfway around the world, with its plume of ash and smoke blackening the skies over London and New York. Moreover, he adds, the explosion caused a wave of anti-Western violence in predominantly Muslim Indonesia,perhaps contributing to the eventual expulsion of the Dutch colonialists from the islands. Though widely reported at the time and even today a byword for natural disaster, the explosion of Krakatoa figures only occasionally in the literature, Winchester writes--and, he adds, in a terrible disaster movie of the 1960s, which "for some reason . . . enjoys the status of a minor cult classic" in Britain. Supremely well told: a fine exception to the dull run of most geological writing.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.05(d)

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The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

Chapter One

"An Island with a Pointed Mountain"

Though we think first of Java as an eponym for coffee (or, to some today, a computer language), it is in fact the trading of aromatic tropical spices on which the fortunes of the great island's colonizers and Western discoverers were first founded. And initially supreme among those spices was the one rather ordinary variety that remains the most widely used today: pepper.

Piper nigrum, Syzygium aromaticum, and Myristica fragrans -- pepper, clove, and nutmeg -- were the original holy trinity of the Asian spice trade. Each was familiar to, and used by, the ancients. Two hundred years before the birth of Christ, for instance, the Chinese of the Han Dynasty demanded that their courtiers address their emperors only when their breath had been sweetened with a mouthful of Javanese cloves, the "odiferous pistils," as they were later more widely known. There is some vague evidence that Roman priests may have employed nutmeg as an incense; it was definitely in use as a flavoring in ninth-century Constantinople, since the terrifyingly Orthodox Saint Theodore the Studite -- the scourge of the image-smashing Iconoclasts -- famously allowed his monks to sprinkle it on the pease pudding they were obliged to eat on days when monastery meat was forbidden. And in Elizabethan times a nutmeg pomander was an essential for keeping foul ailments at bay: The notion that nutmeg could ward off the plague survived longer than many another old wives' tale.

Pepper, though, was of infinitely more moment to the ancients than to be merely a topping, nostrum, or cachou. The Romans used it in abundance: Gibbon wrote of pepper being "a favourite ingredient of the most expensive Roman cookery," and added his authority to the widely held idea that Alaric, the rambunctious king of the Visigoths, had demanded more than a ton of it from the Romans as ransom when he laid siege to the city in a.d. 410. The aureus and the denarius, the gold and silver coins of the empire, became the preferred currency of the Spice Route, and the Indian pepper merchants of Cochin and Malacca and the ports of southern Ceylon were said to be impressed that the denomination of coins was indicated by the number engraved upon them, not by their size.

However they may have been denominated, the coins must have been paid out in enormous numbers. Pepper was so precious and costly and so much in demand that the cost of it all had Pliny the Elder fulminating. "There was no year in which India" -- and by this he meant the Indies, since pepper traded came both from the Malabar Coast and from western Java -- "does not drain the Roman empire of fifty million sesterces." So dearly, he added drily, "do we pay for our luxury and our women."

(There is a pleasing symmetry about Pliny's involvement in this part of the story of Krakatoa, even if he appears in only a walk-on role. Although this rich and well-connected former soldier -- he was a cavalry officer in Roman Germany -- happily took on a variety of official duties on behalf of his emperors, Pliny was above all else a naturalist. He was a savant, or a student, as he once famously put it, of "the nature of things, that is, life." His reputation is based largely on his thirty-seven-volume Natural History, an immense masterpiece in which, among countless other delights, is the first use of the word from which we derive today's encyclopedia.

It was during the late summer of a.d. 79, while pursuing his official task of investigating piracy in the Bay of Naples, that Pliny was persuaded to explore a peculiar cloud formation that appeared to be coming from the summit of the local mountain, Vesuvius. He was duly rowed ashore, visited a local village to calm the panicked inhabitants -- and was promptly caught up in a massive eruption. He died of asphyxiation by volcanic gases on August 24, leaving behind him a vast reputation and, as memorial, a single word in the lexicon of modern vulcanology, Plinian. A Plinian eruption is now defined as an almighty, explosive eruption that all but destroys the entire volcano from which it emanates. And the most devastating Plinian event of the modern era occurred 1,804 years, almost to the day, after Pliny the Elder's death: at Krakatoa.)

Pepper has a confused reputation. There is no truth, for example, in the widely held belief that it was once used to hide the taste of putrefying meat; this charming thought perhaps derives from the equally delightful notion, still recognized by pharmacists today, that pepper can be used as a carminative, a potion that expels flatulence. But it was very much used as a preservative, and more commonly still as a seasoning. By the tenth century it was being imported into England; the Guild of Pepperers, one of the most ancient of London's city guilds, was established at least before 1180, which was when the body was first recorded (they were in court for some minor infraction); by 1328 the guild had been formally registered as an importer of spices in large, or gross, amounts: its members were called grossarii, from which comes the modern word grocer. Joseph Conrad caught the obsession, in Lord Jim:

The seventeenth-century traders went there for pepper, because the passion for pepper seemed to burn like a flame of love in the breast of Dutch and English adventurers about the time of James the First. Where wouldn't they go for pepper! For a bag of pepper they would cut each other's throats without hesitation, and would forswear their souls, of which they were so careful otherwise: the bizarre obstinacy of that desire made them defy death in a thousand shapes; the unknown seas, the loathsome and strange diseases; wounds, captivity, hunger, pestilence, and despair. It made them great! By heavens! it made them heroic . . .

The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
. Copyright © by Simon Winchester. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Professor and the Madman, The Men Who United the States, The Map That Changed the World, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa, all of which were New York Times bestsellers and appeared on numerous best and notable lists. In 2006, Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen. He resides in western Massachusetts.

Brief Biography

New York; Massachusetts; Scotland
Date of Birth:
September 28, 1944
Place of Birth:
London, England
M.A., St. Catherine¿s College, Oxford, 1966

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Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, by Simon Winchester, was an informative read with an interesting point of view. The book starts off not by talking about Krakatoa, but with the history of the spice trade in the Sunda Strait. Winchester explains the importance of the spices, the struggle for control, and the victory of the Dutch. He explains Dutch ideals and their vast trade network with the natives of Java and Banten, and the large amount of Javanese spices and Bantenese jewels the Dutch received. The Dutch settle on the small, quaint island of Batavia, (an island in the Sunda strait), that was filled with rich soil, dense foliage and amazing animal life. The Dutch build manors, ports, lighthouses, and the like all over the island and transform it into a rare example of a perfect world with nature living beside humanity, coexisting in a small island world in peace. After a long time of peaceful existence in this utopian world, the most horrible, terrible thing takes place. Through out the entire book Winchester uses detailed, factual information to support his opinions. What is fact, and what is not, is clearly stated so one does not confuse fact with opinion. The book is spun into a complex, gratifying story with painstaking detail in each chapter. Winchester thoroughly explains his opinions, and backs them up with weighted evidence. This book is a convincing, well written story about a disaster so large it had an affect on the entire planet. This story really opened my eyes as to how extraordinarily massive this explosion and resulting tsunamis really were, and how they changed the world. They leveled cities, completely wiped out islands near by, and killed over 36,000 people. The eruption also actually changed the weather because the massive ash cloud it produced blocked out the sun. Winchester has written a wonderful book that will interest teenagers and adults alike.
Brigit More than 1 year ago
Being fascinated by volcanoes, I was excited to start reading this book given to me for a birthday gift. The illustrations in this book are beautiful and all of the information is very nicely laid out. What a daunting task it must have been to gather all the information contained in this book, and to arrange it into a sequence that makes sense and has good flow to it. Not only was that accomplished, but the closer you get to the first of the series of explosions that rocked Krakatoa and the surrounding islands, the more you can feel the tension building. This book might be a little overwhelming for some readers, since it deals with so much more than the explosion of the volcano and its catastrophic aftermath. This book also goes into great detail about things such as plate tectonics, sea floor spreading, continental drift, volcanic processes, evolution, natural selection, spice trade, the politics and history of Indonesia to name a few. I'm glad I had taken a physical geography class several years before I read this book so I could fully understand all of the scientific data being explained.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm not a science person so I'm surprised I liked this book. I saw something on t.v. about "the son of Krakatoa" so I went back to read this.The author doesn't spend the whole book talking about the volcano but goes back in history to describe the colonization of Indonesia by the Dutch. WInchester also spent a lot of time discussing plate tectonics and earth's magnetism.This is where I got a little lost. Like I said,I'm not a science person. Aside from the massive damage caused by the explosion of Krakatoa,Winchester describes beautifully how that event caused ripples around the world in other ways.The one idea I didn't expect was the volcano's role in politics that still reverberates today.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested at all in geology, especially volcanoes. However, it is not an easy read for the most part, because the author spends most of the book explaining in detail the history of the area around Krakatoa. For this reason, I did not give it five stars, as I expected a much larger focus on the immediate happenings around the time of the volcano's eruption, but anyone with an interest in world history could find this book doubly enjoyable. For me, the scientific aspect of this book was simply fascinating. The author explained the conditions that probably caused Krakatoa's formation and existence, and went even further in discussing other topics. Potential readers should be aware that the scope of this book far exceeds the volcano of Krakatoa; in fact, the author even briefly discusses evolution and biology. Overall, it was extremely well-written and provides an incredible amount of information for anyone who wants to know what exactly happened to Krakatoa and the people affected by it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Simon Winchester, notably of The Professor and the Madman, illuminates another niche historical story. And what a story! Krakatoa's eruption in 1883 is usually presented as a footnote, if at all . . . but how?! The non-science piece de resistance, a possible tie in to fundamental Islam in the region. Nature as a religious catalyst had not been done, not in any substantive way, for several centuries -- and is a completely foreign idea to modern thought. The possibility is intriguing, at the very least. Without a doubt this book offers great science history, readable prose, and nice illustrations. Recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Soooo much technical/scientific background before you get to the actual story. Some was fascinating, some interesting and some just downright boring and tedious.
Sharksweetie More than 1 year ago
A fascinating read about a part of the world that I did not know much about.  Indonesia will never be a "stranger" to me again.
Mary_T More than 1 year ago
I love Simon Winchester. Only he can write a story about such a cataclysmic event with wit, humour and style. He sweeps us effortlessly around the globe, showing all the myriad people and events the eruption affected. Along the way we meet a cast of crazy characters, including a tiny, destructive circus elephant and his eccentric owner. Amidst all the frivolity, though, is a powerful, masterfully told story of incomprehensible disaster. You'll laugh, you'll cry. I particularly recommend the audio version which is read by the author. I find that when authors read their own works, they get another chance to convey their thoughts in their vocal performance. In this case, Winchester's smooth British voice adds an extra dimension of meaning and charm that you'll appreciate.
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The clearing is a spot in the middle of a small cherry tree forest and it is usually sparkling from dew in the mornings of new-leaf and green-leaf. The cherry tree forest usual has a mystical fog that gave the clan its name. It gives some cats a eerie feeling, but the clan is used to it and walk in it to get closer with StarClan. In newleaf the clearing blossoms with wild flowers of all colors and the trees grow few cherries, but the clan get to eat a few cherries if they climb high enough.
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Like some other reviewers mentioned it takes quite awhile to get to the actual volcano in this book about a volcano. And I also add my voice to those readers wanting more maps. Ebook-wise, this version needs to be cleaned up a bit. There were a couple of paragraphs that were repeated as well as odd word substitutions. (There were several times when the word "die" was used instead of "the". That is, unless author Simon Winchester was sending me a subliminal message.)
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