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

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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 possibly be imagined. Dust swirled round the planet for years, causing temperatures to plummet and sunsets to turn vivid with lurid and unsettling ...
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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 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.
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Editorial Reviews

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
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.
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.
Baltimore Sun
“Winchester scores.” (byline Baltimore Sun, printed in Pittsburg Post-Gazette)
International Herald Tribune
“The rich and fascinating KRAKATOA confirms [Winchester’s] preeminence. Janet Maslin
New York Times
“Brilliant...One of the best books ever written about the history and significance of a natural disaster.”
Chicago Sun-Times
“ noted for his ability to turn scholarly history into engrossing narrative.”
Entertainment Weekly
“A real-life story bigger than any Hollywood blockbuster.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Winchester’s exceptional attention to detail never falters.”
Boston Sunday Globe
“Krakatoa is a pleasure from beginning to end.”
The Economist
“Masterful build-up of literary and geological tension.”
Daily News
“Winchester dramatically delivers...the book is absorbing...”
Washington Post Book World
“A good read.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641830143
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/5/2005
  • Series: P.S. Series
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 5.38 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 1.24 (d)

Meet the Author

Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Professor and the Madman, Atlantic, The Man Who Loved China, A Crack in the Edge of the World, and Krakatoa. In 2006, Mr. Winchester was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty the Queen. He lives in western Massachusetts.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York; Massachusetts; Scotland
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 28, 1944
    2. Place of Birth:
      London, England
    1. Education:
      M.A., St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, 1966
    2. Website:

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Maps
Prelude 17
1 "An Island with a Pointed Mountain" 28
2 The Crocodile in the Canal 71
3 Close Encounters on the Wallace Line 93
4 The Moments When the Mountain Moved 191
5 The Unchaining of the Gates of Hell 241
6 A League from the Last of the Sun 285
7 The Curious Case of the Terrified Elephant 314
8 The Paroxysm, the Flood, and the Crack of Doom 330
9 Rebellion of a Ruined People 498
10 The Rising of the Son 531
Epilogue: The Place the World Exploded 575
Recommendations for (and, in One Case, Against) Further Reading and Viewing 603
Acknowledgments, Erkenningen, Terima Kasih 621
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First Chapter

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.
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Reading Group Guide


The legendary annihilation in 1883 of the volcano-island of Krakatoa -- the name has since become a byword for a 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. The effects of the immense waves were felt as far away as France. Barometers in Bogotá and Washington, D.C., went haywire. Bodies were washed up in Zanzibar. The sound of the island's destruction was heard in Australia and India and on islands thousands of miles away. 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.

Simon Winchester's long experience in the world wandering, as well as his knowledge of history and geology, give us an entirely new perspective on this fascinating and iconic event.

Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss some of the many legends associated with the name Krakatoa (Carcata, Krakatau, Cacatoua). What does the name signify today?

  2. Describe the cosmopolitan climate of the 17th century Dutch colony Batavia. How did that mood change in the 19th century, when Old Batavia was abandoned by Europeans who fled to Buitenzorg, the uptown suburb?

  3. What important roles did Philip Sclater and Alfred Russel Wallace play in Darwin's theory of the origin of species and survival of the fittest? In the case of Wallace, did you feel that his role in history has been unduly neglected?

  4. How did Alfred Wegener's theories about continental drift anticipate plate tectonic theory? How did the author's experiences in Greenland in 1965s further scientific understanding of these theories?

  5. Discuss Krakatoa's eruptions prior to the catastrophic eruption in 1883. Did this historical background give you a more complete sense of Krakatoa as a living volcano? How do you think they compared in scope to the 1883 event?

  6. Describe the beginnings of the 1883 eruption. What warnings did people in the region have that a major volcanic event was going to occur? How did the advent of transatlantic cables and telegraphs make this an international catastrophe?

  7. Were you surprised by the duration of the 1883 Krakatoa event, from the earliest vibrations to the full eruption, some eight weeks later? What struck you about the many contemporary descriptions of this occurrence? How did some of the Javanese and Sumatrans make sense of this event?

  8. Simon Winchester writes: "The death throes of Krakatoa lasted for exactly twenty hours and fifty-six minutes." What occurred during those hours? What part did the ocean play in the catastrophic destruction?

  9. How did Krakatoa manage to transform the evening skies? How did the event alter the science of weather forecasting? The global climate?

  10. How were tensions between Dutch colonists and the Muslim Javanese and Sumatran community exacerbated in the wake of the Krakatoa eruption?

About the author

Simon Winchester was a geologist at Oxford and worked in Africa and on offshore oil rigs before becoming a full-time globe-trotting foreign correspondent and writer. He is the author of The Map that Changed the World, The Professor and the Madman, and The Fracture Zone, among many other titles. He currently lives on a small farm in the Berkshires in Massachusetts and in the Western Isles of Scotland.

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted January 14, 2009


    I would not recommend reading Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. I found it rather dry. It seemed to me that the author repeated the same information, particularly when it comes to the subject of plate tectonics. The author also seems to wander from topic to topic, in no order that was apparent to me. He goes from writing about the Dutch, to writing about plate tectonics, to writing about early Javanese history, to writing about plate tectonics again, and so on. I did learn from this book, such as where the Sunda Strait is and what the Wallace Line is. The part about the Indian and Australian flora and fauna even approaches interesting. But overall, I found the book boring and can at best recommend it only as educational.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    Fabulous read

    I had to order a second copy - one I lent out never came back, but this is a great book - enjoyed it - I think I read just about read it in one sitting (while my son was in the hospital) and even managed to learn a little geology in the middle of it all (that was the only tough part).<BR/>I'm a huge non-fiction reader - and love history - I enjoyed this book immensely, and have recommended it to several people (Like my uncle, one of my sons, and a few others). I even used it for a paper in a general science class I had to take to get my degree a couple of years ago.<BR/><BR/>Well worth reading...!!!!! Interesting, well written (and I'm picky).

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