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

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

by Simon Winchester


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Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester, New York Times bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman, examines the legendary annihilation in 1883 of the volcano-island of Krakatoa, which was followed by an immense tsunami that killed nearly forty thousand people. 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. Krakatoa gives us an entirely new perspective on this fascinating and iconic event.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060838591
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/05/2005
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 127,808
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.05(d)

About 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.


New York; Massachusetts; Scotland

Date of Birth:

September 28, 1944

Place of Birth:

London, England


M.A., St. Catherine¿s College, Oxford, 1966

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Maps
1"An Island with a Pointed Mountain"28
2The Crocodile in the Canal71
3Close Encounters on the Wallace Line93
4The Moments When the Mountain Moved191
5The Unchaining of the Gates of Hell241
6A League from the Last of the Sun285
7The Curious Case of the Terrified Elephant314
8The Paroxysm, the Flood, and the Crack of Doom330
9Rebellion of a Ruined People498
10The Rising of the Son531
Epilogue: The Place the World Exploded575
Recommendations for (and, in One Case, Against) Further Reading and Viewing603
Acknowledgments, Erkenningen, Terima Kasih621

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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Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 56 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.
name99 on LibraryThing 6 days ago
The sort of well-rounded geography plus history plus science I've come to expect from Mr Winchester.
dickcraig on LibraryThing 6 days ago
Another good Winchester book but not my favorite. It is about the eruption that changed the face of the world.
delphica on LibraryThing 6 days ago
(Book 19 in the 2005 Book Challenge)Wow, this book was amazing! First off, volcanos are just cool in general. I picked this up at the bookstore when I was in one of those moods where I was feeling guilty about buying books so I figured it would help if I included a book that was educational. I realized I needed education on this topic because I didn't really know anything about Krakatoa other than that it has a nifty name (a la the B-52s, that's how I always say it in my head). I couldn't even locate it on a map, and that was pretty bad because there was a map in the book, and even after looking at that, I couldn't quite place it on a world map.The first part of the book is about how volcanos work in general, so there was a lot about plate tectonics. I am now so pleased with myself for learning about plate tectonics work that I keep hoping it will come up in casual conversation so I can say something knowledgeable about subduction zones. I suspect this is unlikely, but a girl can dream.The second half was about Krakatoa in particular, and it was CHOCK FULL OF AMAZING FACTS. I got very annoying because I kept saying to James "Fact! The sound of the final eruption was so loud, it was heard over 2,900 miles away!" That's like if something happened in New York City, and you could hear it in San Francisco. I mean really. That's out of control.The book also contained a very handy map of subduction zones, so I can know to never go to those places.Grade: ARecommended: To people who like learning about natural disasters, and people who enjoy creeping themselves out at the thought of massive volcanos erupting.
SaraPrindiville on LibraryThing 6 days ago
Really fascinating book about geology! I kept telling my family about plate tectonics and the effects of the eruption. I'm glad I knew a little about geology before reading this, but I learned a lot and remembered a lot. One of the best books I've read this summer!
klarusu on LibraryThing 6 days ago
This is the recounting of the history of the eruption of Mount Krakatoa. It's an interesting examination of many of the factors in play at the time, garnered from many different sources and containing both scientific and historical perspectives on the events. I come from a background of undergrad geological science, so found the chapters detailing the geology interesting - if you were less inclined in that direction, I can imagine they might prove slower going (but maybe I'm wrong, as you were obviously interested enough to buy the book!). There were interesting windows onto life at the time as well.Despite all of this, for some intangible reason I felt that the book missed the mark slightly. I can't really explain why but despite the fact that it was an easy and engaging read and that I came away more informed than I was before, I still felt slightly disappointed by this one - as if it was almost there but just fell short. Nonetheless, a worthwhile read.
Cecrow on LibraryThing 6 days ago
While I found this to be a very good read, I didn't like how the author went through the whole sequence in one story, then backed up and retold it from the beginning for the next, etc. This treatment made the book more tiresome to read and academic than I'd anticipated. I can't fault the quality of research and it's an interesting topic. I'm not sure I'd read other books by the author using this one to judge his style by however, unless I was already very interested in the topic.
blooee on LibraryThing 6 days ago
I thought this was a fantastic book! I'm fascinated by the power volcanoes have and how we take it for granted that nothing like this could ever happen again. I'm about to re-read it.
noirem on LibraryThing 6 days ago
Today, off of the Discovery Channel, I watched a docu-drama about the 1883 Krakatoa eruption, which really just made me want to read the book of the same title (though not, I hasten to add, the basis for the tv episode) by Simon Winchester. I was going to digress briefly on the subject of television vs. print as media but, of course, the Ferret beat me to it.I'm glad I saw the show before reading the book; I feel a faint sense of a shame admitting it, but I didn't know the story of Krakatoa (other than what I got from the back of the book - that it was a huge volcanic eruption and registered as An Important Historical Event to everyone except me), and while the special effects were cheesy and the historical characters overly dramatized (how, I kept asking the tv, do you know they had this conversation? How much are you making up and how much is true? Shouldn't they be more visibly injured?), it was a captivating series of events, one well worth pursuing, namely in the form of a book that hadn't particularly grabbed my interest, except in that it was written by an author I admire. (His other works on the making of the OED and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake being of greater initial interest.)I love Simon Winchester's anecdotal approach to history. In the prologue, contextualizing the importance of Java in regards to trade and spices, he quotes the Roman historian and naturalist Pliny the Elder's writings on pepper, and then goes on to explain that Pliny went to investigate the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, was trapped by falling ash and rough seas, and asphyxiated on the clouds of ash and fumes. Pliny's nephew, Pliny the Younger, observed the volcano from a safer distance and his letters are the first scientific observation of a, wait for it, Plinian eruption.At one point he was describing the terror those people recorded and it's funny 'cause part of me went "yep, that's what it's like." The difference of course being that my terror was less than two minutes and theirs went on for more than a day and then I, homeless, went to stay with friends until we could find a rental and they, homeless, had to clean up dead bodies. But the terror resonated.
GMac on LibraryThing 6 days ago
Considers the global impact of the 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, documenting its cause of an immense tsunami that killed 40,000 people, its impact on the weather for several years, and its role in anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism.
bcquinnsmom on LibraryThing 10 days ago
I wish I had taken geology in college to appreciate this book a little more. I opted for physiology and geography, but I digress. This book was very well written, and its main draw, for me, was the first-hand accounts of the 1883 explosion & then disappearance of the island of Krakatoa (which is actually not EAST of Java, but rather west of Java). I wouldn't recommend it to someone looking for a quick read, or a set story, because this book will provide neither.The author tries to make the connection between the effects of the volcano's explosion and political/religious upheaval in Indonesia, and for a brief moment, states his case fairly well. However, he lets that line go in an effort to get back to the science of it all. One particularly appealing point he brought up was that the people living under Dutch colonial rule were, prior to the eruption of 1883, dissatisfied and hard pressed under their masters, but after the volcano erupted, Islamic fundamentalists viewed the event as a sign of apocalypse -- a sign that the Mahdi (their messianic figure) was on his way. It was also a signal (even though the Dutch were somewhat involved with relief effort) for the "peasants" to express their dissatisfaction and frustrations after this natural disaster, thus causing an uprising. This is, indeed, a pattern of human nature.All in all, I really enjoyed this book, and look forward to his next one. Don't let the science discourage you. And, if you haven't done so, read The Professor and the Madman.
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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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