Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 - Simon Winchester (2003)



The leaders formed an élite group, which developed and transmitted the time-honoured prophecies or vision of history concerning the coming of the righteous king – the Mahdi.

— from The Peasants' Revolt of Banten in 1888
by Sartono Kartodirdjo, 1966

The central market in Serang, an unremarkable crossroads town a few miles inland from the little pepper port of Banten, sells everything and attracts everyone. On Tuesday 2 October 1883 – five weeks after the eruption, while the dead of Java and Sumatra were still being buried and the ruins of the towns and villages on the coast were still being cleared – a Dutch fusilier stopped by to purchase his weekly supply of tobacco.

In normal circumstances it would count for nothing that this man was a part of the ruling foreign enginework of the Indies: the merchants of Serang were ecumenical in their pursuit of trade, and the tobacco-seller, like everyone else, would happily accept the custom of anyone – brown, yellow or, as in this case, a white European from the curiously privileged group who ruled over them.

But these were not normal circumstances. All of a sudden there seemed to be a curious feeling of tension in the air. The Dutch had been aware of it for some days now – a kind of muted resentment, a vague hostility that made people look away, or mutter among themselves in hushed tones whenever a Dutch official happened by. Perhaps they were imagining things. After all, the Krakatoa relief operations – all organized by the Dutch – were now in full swing, Dutch money was pouring into the area, shelters were being built, roads cleared, businesses reopened. The Dutch governor-general himself, aboard the steam-yacht The King of the Netherlands, had paid an official visit.

The local people had every reason, one would have thought, to be grateful for the colonists' help in speeding along their programme of rescue and rebuilding. It wasn't the fault of the Dutch that the tragedy had happened: but, without a murmur of complaint, the Dutch were quite generously helping the people who were worst affected. True, the relief efforts organized from Rotterdam and Amsterdam were more concerned with ensuring that Dutch-owned businesses were able to stagger back on to their feet; but if the native people derived benefit as a result – well, that was in part what colonialism was all about, surely? And they thus had ample reason to look kindly on their faraway benefactors, n'est-ce pas?

But then here in Serang, the unimaginable happened. It was while the young soldier was in the process of handing over a fistful of guilders for a package of fine-cured and locally grown tobacco with which to pack his meerschaum, that a bearded man, dressed entirely in white and armed with a curved dagger, suddenly threw himself on the soldier and began to stab him repeatedly in the back.

The astonished fusilier, gravely wounded, managed to stagger into a nearby Chinese shop. The attacker, his task completed to his satisfaction, ran away and was soon lost in the throng. The market was thrown into chaos. Nothing like this had happened before. Troops from the garrison – one of the five in Java's First Military Region, and one of the smaller – immediately flooded into the area, and promptly arrested a number of known malcontents. But none could be proven to have been the attacker: the would-be assassin seemed to have got away with it.

Then much the same thing happened again six weeks later. Another young man, also dressed ostentatiously in white robes, somehow managed to infiltrate the garrison headquarters itself, and when he was challenged brandished a long knife and slightly wounded a locally raised sentry named Umar Djaman. The attacker was this time captured and interrogated: military investigators, bewildered by the man's confusing answers to their questions, suggested in their report that the motive for his assault was an inexplicable case of ‘extreme religious zeal’.

To the local military commander the attacks were unprecedented, and sinister. True, there had only been two of them, and they might well have been perpetrated by the same deranged man (though the assailant held in custody in November refused to confirm that he had also carried out the October incident). But two attacks or not, it seemed to the puzzled soldiery, and to those already aware of the sullen mood, that there had been a mysterious outbreak of a weirdly fanatical anger, and that it was for some reason directed specifically against the Dutch masters. It would be prudent, the soldiers suggested to their political superiors, that the authorities from henceforth be permanently on their guard.

They were right to be careful. The events in Serang that autumn turned out to be the beginning of a long and exceptionally violent period in western Java – a period that culminated in a memorably dangerous and politically ominous rebellion that erupted five years later, in 1888. The Banten Peasants' Revolt, as the episode is now generally known, is thought by many today to be a turning point in the region's colonial history – one of the milestones on the road leading to the eventual expulsion of the Europeans in 1949, and the creation of modern independent Indonesia. There had been many small rebellions in Java over the years; but what happened in Banten had a significance that transcended many of the other outbreaks of violence and hostility.

For what took place among the population of the north-western tip of Java between 1883 and 1888 was not, however, of political significance alone. The time also had great religious significance, since it marked a period when Islam had become fully entwined with the local political developments of the day and – so many scholars now accept – had also begun actually to dictate at least some of the major political developments of the period. It was not the first time, of course. In India, the Mughal rulers had become amply caught up in the politics of the subcontinent; and in Spain, ever since the Arab governor of Tangier had invaded via Gibraltar in AD 711, Arabs were to run large tracts of the peninsula for much of the next four centuries. Islam had wielded enormous power in southern Europe too.

In the East Indies, matters proceeded rather differently. A close look at these five years, particularly among the unusually pious people of Banten, shows clearly the beginning of militant and anti-Western Islamic movements – movements spawned in Java, but that have since become an important feature of the realpolitik of the modern world. An examination of the events that began with this pair of attacks on the colonial military in the autumn of 1883 suggests that the driving force behind most of the subsequent violence in west Java – prefigured by the bearded men in white, acting out of their ‘extreme religious zeal’ – was without a doubt fundamentalist, militant, anti-colonial, anti-infidel Islam.

Many reasons have been put forward to account for the late nineteenth century's upsurge in anti-Dutch feeling in the region – and for the parallel upsurge in Islamic zealotry in the East Indies. Poverty, alleged colonial tyranny, corruption, the unbearable heaviness of the imperial yoke – all of these factors, here in the Indies as in a score of other territories similarly burdened by the authority of outsiders – bore down on the local people and, as their education and awareness of the world increased, began to make them restless. Sporadic revolts, irritatingly persistent outbreaks in other regions of Dutch East India – in Aceh and Macassar and the Moluccas particularly – all appear to have been driven by what historians would later accept was a growing mood of restlessness – just as anti-colonial movements were developing at much the same time in India* and Malaya, and elsewhere.

In Java and Sumatra, however, there was one additional factor that seemed to have played a role in fomenting a mood of general popular unease – and that, surprisingly, was the devastating eruption of the huge volcano. The geological processes that destroyed Krakatoa, in other words, appear to have played no small part in creating the political mood of the moment. That the volcano and the economic and social dislocation it caused had an effect of some sort seems now undeniable; but whether its impact was limited and peripheral, or whether it can be linked to the development of movements that in turn led to the eventual seeing-off of the Dutch, is a matter of some debate.

The immense geophysical turbulence of the East Indies – with twenty-one active volcanoes and ten active solfataras on the island of Java alone – has long played an important part in mystical belief. Each volcano has a god – Krakatoa's being the widely feared Orang Alijeh – and he readily displays his anger with earthly conditions by spewing forth fire and gas and lava. But more: the Javanese in particular take a global view of their vulcanicity, believing that their island is where the earth and heaven have been arranged closest to one another, and where transmissions between one sphere and the other are more common and more intimate than anywhere else on the planet.

So, on Java, volcanic eruptions are much more than simple expressions of dismay by distempered deities. They are astral messages sent directly down to the earth, and of an importance that would be ignored only at man's peril. Given such a system of beliefs, it might perhaps not be wholly unreasonable to suppose that Krakatoa's almighty act of self-immolation in August 1883 was seen locally as possessing the most profound of inner meanings.

So did the eruption somehow act as a political catalyst? Did it, for reasons rooted deep in this Javanese mysticism, drive a wedge between the terrified and dispossessed people and the paternalistic Dutch authorities? Did it then nudge them towards the comforting stability of Islam? And did Islam's subsequent defiant stance against colonialism then somehow offer such succour and comfort to those who were dispossessed and terrified that they wholeheartedly accepted the invitation to follow its precepts and demands, however extreme they might be?

And still further: did Islam come to act as a banner under which these people might turn against the Dutchmen whom they could now, all of a sudden and with the clarity of a new perspective, see not as their benevolent leaders and well-intentioned mentors but, as so many imperial agents are eventually viewed, as their oppressors? And if Krakatoa played a part in this chain of events, then can the eruption of Krakatoa come to be seen in a sense as an unwitting, readily adopted political event in and of itself – an event with effects that would resonate in the East Indies for many years to come?

At the time of the eruption, the Dutch in the East Indies were showing signs of momentarily losing their grip. The imperial purpose, quite coincidentally, seemed to be faltering. The old self-confidence of the Hollanders had taken a beating, and a mood of reform and change was in the air.

The cause of their discomfiture, though they might be loath to admit it, had been the publication in Amsterdam twenty years earlier of the book that had sent a shudder through the conscience of an entire Dutch people, and forced them to wonder just why they were running, in so questionable a way, a colony so far from home. The short novel that had had this extraordinary effect, Netherlands-wide, was written by a man who briefly hid behind the pseudonym Multatuli, and it was called Max Havelaar.

The author was in fact a young colonial official named Eduard Douwes Dekker (Multatuli, a somewhat self-pitying by-name, is Javanese for ‘I have endured much’). In 1855, as the protégé of the governor-general of the day, he was appointed Assistant Resident of a small west Javan regency called Lebak, which is coincidentally not far from the garrison town of Serang. He arrived there under the impression that he was on a secret mission to correct a slew of injustices that he knew had been visited on the local people – but over the three months he remained in the post he managed, by a relentless campaign of whistle-blowing, to ruffle the feathers of the entire Dutch administration. After uncovering tales not just of mismanagement and inadvertent cruelty, but of murder and corruption on a far greater scale than he had imagined, he resigned, returned to Holland and eventually wrote the book that was to become one of the great landmarks of recent Dutch literature.

It was published in 1860, to the shock, astonishment and dismay of an entire country, which learned for the first time the details of the manner in which their officials were running their most distant and wealthiest possession. The book was a savage indictment of the colonial attitudes of the Dutch – and in particular of that astonishingly exploitative Dutch invention known as the Kultuurstelsel, the Cultivation System, which was introduced in 1830 and which compelled all villages to set aside one fifth of their crops for the government in order to pay the cripplingly high land taxes. All villagers were held collectively responsible for the tax payment, and to ensure that responsibility was met no one could travel beyond his or her village without official permission – which was seldom given.

The system made the Dutch rulers fabulously rich; but upon its exposure in Max Havelaar one critic wrote that he had now seen demonstrated ‘that almost nothing of the great revenues from the island was devoted to the education or benefit of the natives; that no mission or evangelical work was undertaken, or even allowed, by this foremost Protestant people of Europe; and that next to nothing in the way of public works or permanent improvements resulted to the advantage of those who toiled for the alien, absentee landlord, the country being drained of its wealth for the benefits of a distant monarch’.

The Dutch – government and planter alike, for Max Havelaar focused much of its attention on corruption within the coffee plantations – were condemned as ‘synonyms for all of rapacity, tyranny, extortion and cruelty’. Dekker cheekily dedicated his book to King Willem III – ‘as Emperor of the glorious realm… that coils yonder round the Equator like a girdle of emerald, and where millions of subjects are being maltreated and exploited in your name’. For doing so, and for daring to write so intemperate an exposé and to lay it before a smug, insouciant Dutch public, he was vilified, attacked and forced into the same kind of exile (he died in Germany) that was suffered by the similarly evangelizing Dutchman, Vincent van Gogh.

But reform of the kind that Dekker was demanding did eventually come about. Max Havelaar was debated in the Dutch parliament. The iniquities of the Kultuurstelsel, so vividly described in the novel, were slowly recognized, and through the years following the sensation it was gradually abolished.* Pepper was freed


The title page of Max Havelaar, published in 1860.

from its strictures in 1862, two years after the book's publication; clove and nutmeg were taken off the list in 1863, tea, cinnamon, cochineal and indigo in 1865, tobacco in 1866. And eventually a wholly new approach to the governance of the colony took root. By the end of the century the East Indies were ruled under the principles of a brand-new and so-called Ethical Policy. The Dutch now started to take sedulous care of their subject peoples. Under the new scheme they employed officials not simply to repress and squeeze profits from the territory, as in the past, but to take charge of public health, to improve education and to offer agricultural help, the better to advance the condition of the people.

This reform – too little, too late, and not enough to still the nationalist mood – was perhaps Eduard Dekker's greatest legacy. But it was not to be in place until the beginning of the twentieth century. At the time of the Krakatoa eruption – and at the time of the events that led to the Banten rebellion – most of the old colonial attitudes and most of the old colonial establishment still held sway. Matters were beginning to change and to improve; but they had not yet fully done so, and the unreformed state of the colony left ample room for those who were determined to agitate against the Dutch and their unrequested mastery to make such mayhem as they could. Among those most eager to lead the agitation, and to make the most mayhem, especially in Banten and the ultra-religious west of Java, were the more conservatively minded Muslims.

One hundred and seventy million Indonesians are currently members, notionally or devotedly, of the Islamic faith. It is the most populous Muslim country in the world, and the greatest of all success stories – if numbers are the best indicator of success – in fourteen centuries of Islamic proselytizing. All of its people are either converts or descendants of converts: it is easy to forget that the world's greatest Muslim populations – in Iran, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia – all belong to a faith that is quintessentially and inescapably Arab. Indonesia was converted by Arabs, and it looks to Arabia and Arabians still for spiritual guidance and direction.

Islam, it should not be forgotten, is at its heart an imperial religion, and Arabism is perhaps the greatest of all contemporary imperial movements – one of the many reasons for its current collision with the West, which of course has its own competing, profit-driven imperial agenda. The collisions between Arab-inspired Islam and its agents, and the money-driven,. trade-driven West and hers, have been many and various: those that occurred in the East Indies in the latter part of the nineteenth century are now, when seen from today's perspective, classics of the kind.

Islam first came to the East Indies in the thirteenth century, and ironically (considering the present schism between East and West, between spirituality and materialism, between God and Mammon) it came with Arab traders who were in search of business there. There is a grave of a sultan in north Sumatra that dates from 1211. There is another, at Gresik in east Java, which sports designs indicating that it was carved by masons from India in 1419. A late-fifteenth-century mosque in Demak, on the north coast of Java about 300 miles east of Batavia, was clearly the result of architectural compromises between Javanese and Arab builders. It had a holiness to it that the local mullahs regarded as both profound and ineffable, and they declared that to visit it seven times – though there is no spiritual explanation for the number – had the spiritual worth of the single haj pilgrimage to Mecca.

In Banten itself Islam became properly established at the beginning of the sixteenth century, a little later than in much of the rest of Java, and considerably later than in north Sumatra. It caught hold immediately, spread with extraordinary speed, and before long became a model to which Arabs and hajis alike could point with pride. Among the Bantenese and their coastal compatriots the Sundanese, the religion achieved a degree of penetration that was almost unrivalled in the archipelago. The west Javanese soon had a reputation for being more assiduous, more spiritual and more fundamentalist than almost any others. It was difficult for a traveller to pass between Batavia and the coast without seeing scores of mosques, and without hearing the five-times-daily cry of the muezzin, calling the willing faithful, here in their millions, to prayer.

Yet, it is important to remember that East Indian Islam was always of a much milder stripe than that practised in the Middle East and Africa. The lingering influence of Hinduism, in particular, led to a significant local dilution of Islam's rigours. Regional superstitions, pockets of animist belief and a whole host of religious oddities washed over the mullahs' teachings – with the result that the Islam that developed in Java, especially, turned out to be highly syncretic, a maze of compromises that drew influences not merely from Mecca but from a patchwork of other beliefs as well.

In spite of this rather off-centre aspect of Javanese Islam, a central feature of life on the island, and in particular of the lives of most Banten Muslims, remained the pilgrimage to Mecca. Although all good Muslims everywhere were required to take part in the haj, figures compiled by the Dutch government suggest that more Bantenese and Sundanese went to perform the obligations of orthodoxy than any other group in Java. And the figures were all the while rising steadily: in 1850 just 1,600 undertook the haj; by 1870 it was 2,600; and in the 1880s an average of 4,600 took off on boats to Arabia.*

The Dutch authorities were understandably wary of the practice, and they could have used the harsher regulations of the Cultivation System – to curb the travel of suspect individuals, for instance – to prevent it. But they soon realized that to forbid a custom of pilgrimage that was centuries old would have been fatally imprudent: all they could do was to try to make sure the pilgrims were persuaded to keep their potentially corrosive sojourn in Arabia as short as possible, and to monitor the behaviour of them all just as soon as they came home.

What bothered the Dutch was that the longer the pilgrims stayed away, the more ‘Arabized' they were on return, the more they held the Dutch infidels in contempt, the more they tended to take part in violent acts against the colonial power. ‘Mecca was nothing but a hotbed of religious fanaticism, wrote Snouck Hurgronje, the leading Dutch scholar on Islamic matters of the time, ‘where people were inculcated with hostile feelings against Christian overlords in their homeland.’

(The history of militant Islam is long and extremely complex, and well beyond the scope of this chapter's account of the political effects of Krakatoa's eruption. Yet it is perhaps worth mentioning that the rise in extreme anti-Western Islamic feeling in some corners of the world – like the Dutch East Indies – came about when it did and as it did because elsewhere in the Muslim world, in the late nineteenth century, Islam was coming under an increasing threat from Western imperialism. In North Africa and the Middle East, for example, European powers – the French and the British most notably – were seizing territory or assuming influence on all sides, to the dismay of the mullahs and the mosque.

The mullahs in Mecca, not unreasonably, saw those pilgrims who were coming from the East – from lands that were already under the unwelcome control of Dutch infidels themselves – as having a use. They could perhaps be messengers, men who could return to their homes to spread the Word, try to reassert Islamic purity and authority, and somehow eventually – as their supreme goal – wrest the archipelago from the menace of the unbelievers' control. The fact that the Krakatoa tragedy took place just when these developments were beginning to unfold is one of those historical coincidences too attractive to ignore.)

It is usually the case with the upsurge of any political or religious movement that one figure, a charismatic leader, or a demagogue, or both, becomes the identifiable personality of the movement. Such was very much the case in west Java, with the steady rise to prominence of a Java-born mystic named Haji Abdul Karim. Abdul Karim, whose teachings played no small role in the Banten rebellion, was from the middle of the 1870s the leader of a powerful local Sufi movement, which he and a corps of acolytes managed from his headquarters in Banten town.

Abdul Karim had started his Islamic education early. He had been to Mecca when he was a mere child; by his teenage years he spoke and read Arabic fluently, he had a scholarly knowledge of Islamic theology. He returned to his birthplace in his late twenties, and, as his mentor back in Mecca suggested, set himself up as a seer and messenger of Allah – a role that endeared him mightily to the Javanese masses. He had been in trouble with the Dutch authorities for violating passport regulations, and so was already regarded as a scourge of the infidels, a thorn in the imperial flank.

By the late 1870s his home had become a place of pilgrimage: tens of thousands of fanatic Bantenese and Sundanese would come each day for a laying-on of hands, or a few words from this remarkable man. He was showered with alms. The Dutch Resident – suspicious no doubt, but well aware of the power of the man – paid an official visit. At first the message that this wali Allah offered to his growing army of followers was simply one of the need for piety, orthodoxy and asceticism.

But as the number of his disciples grew, so his message dramatically changed – though whether it did so at the behest of Mecca or on Abdul Karim's own initiative is not clear. His revised version was considerably more alarmist, and for the ruling Dutch it was deeply ominous. For Abdul Karim began to predict what other devout Islamic seers were busily preaching, much to the worry of authorities in other regions of the world* – that the Mahdi, the messianic figure who would come to save the world from godlessness in its last days, was shortly to appear.

And in this pronouncement appears at last the key, the single link of chain that connects two apparently unconnectable features: on the one hand a volcanic eruption and on the other a movement


A Javanese imam who had performed the same pilgrimage to Mecca as the rebel leader Haji Abdul Karim.

for political change. The prediction made by this charismatic Islamic mystic and ardently accepted by tens of thousands of his followers, that the Mahdi was about to come, turns out to be intimately connected to the eruption of 1883. And it is so connected because the version of Islamic teaching that deals with the Mahdi and his Holy War against the infidel holds that the arrival of the Mahdi is always accompanied by a series of definite signs. There would be diseases of cattle. There would be floods. There would be blood-coloured rain. And volcanoes would erupt, and people would die.

And it so happened that each and every one of these predictions had occurred in Banten in precisely the manner that Haji Abdul Karim had forecast. Cattle were dying on all sides because of an uncontrollable outbreak of murrain, the foulest of all bovine plagues. The west Javan coastal villages from Merak south to Labuan had been devastated by tsunamis. The rain was still tinted brown with the ash that swirled ceaselessly in the skies over Java. The island of Krakatoa had blown herself to pieces. And 36,000 people had died in the tidal waves from the ash flows and the gas flows that had resulted.

What clearer signs could any devout believer possibly demand as an indication that the Day of Judgement was at hand, the Mahdi was on the way and the Holy War against the infidel was about to begin? Small wonder, some might say, that two of the foot-soldiers in the coming war, dressed in martyrs' white, pressed their attack against the unbelievers, just weeks after the eruption was done. The fact that Abdul Karim had himself long since returned to Mecca* to assume a senior post in the Sufi hierarchy there made no difference: his teachings had been heard, his disciplines were in place, and a network of his so-called tarekat, the brotherhood he had established to carry on his work, was functioning like a well-oiled piece of machinery.

One of those who would be bold enough to link the two events, to put Krakatoa at the head of a long chain of happenings that culminated in the 1888 rebellion, was by chance one of the eruption's eyewitnesses. He was called R. A. van Sandick. A technical-school teacher from Deventer in central Holland, he had been hired by the colonial government for his knowledge of hydraulics. He just happened to be aboard the official vessel the Gouverneur-Generaal Loudon when Krakatoa exploded.

He watched with horror as the events unfolded; he plunged promptly into the relief effort, learning as he did so as much as he could about the social conditions of west Java, and how they had been changed by the tragedy. In 1892 he wrote a short, seven-chaptered book, Leed en Lief in Banten (Sorrow and Love in Banten), which was the first to offer details of Abdul Karim's predictions. The following translation may be a little shaky, but the message in the relevant chapter is abundantly clear:

The mullahs and teachers of religion in the pesantren,* who were stirring up the people in Banten, took the opportunity given by the enormous and deep-felt impression left by the Krakatoa eruption, to expand their influence. Was it not, they said, the revenge of Allah, not only against the unbelieving dogs, but also against those Bantenese people who were serving these kafirs, these infidels? There was no doubt: the disaster of Krakatoa was a sign of God, the great omen of which the holy Abdul Karim had spoken. Had he not predicted heavy earthquakes, and the end of the world? And see, the sun was darkened for hours, and now after the eruption the sun shone as a red or sometimes as a grey or blue ball on a grey firmament. Was this not strange, these nameless colours shining these days at twilight?

Did not God create the tidal waves that rose 30 metres above normal sea-level? And did he not speak in a thunder, as a result of which the whole of Banten shook in deepest darkness? And, ask the fishermen of the Sunda Strait – has not the bottom of the sea been raised by a God? Has not three-quarters of the island of Krakatoa disappeared? Are you blind to all these deeds brought about by God? Be humble for the Almighty! Pay for your sins! Can you still doubt, said the mullahs, now that you know that Abdul Karim has predicted all this?

A somewhat more sinister development was the discovery that autumn of a number of documents and letters, written in Arabic, which were circulating in the towns of Banten. The Dutch Colonial Police who managed to intercept specimens said immediately that they were attempts by foreigners to foment trouble in the wake of the eruption. And though most of the letters in fact seem to deal with the immense social problems caused not by Krakatoa but by the cattle-plague, suggesting it had been the work of a wrathful Allah demonstrating his displeasure with the Dutch infidels and their local stooges, the letters' interest today turns more on their origin than on their content.

Most of the letters appear to have come, via messengers, from Arabia itself. And though the entire peninsula was then under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, it was still the fountainhead of Islamic orthodoxy. Fundamentalism prevailed most especially on that particularly devout desert southern tract of the peninsula known as the Hadhramaut, now part of the eastern side of Yemen.

The fact that nineteenth-century Java was being whipped into a fury in part by Yemeni fundamentalists – acting directly (it is said, though not proven, that Arab mullahs were in Banten soon after the eruption), or indirectly (the letters and distributed propaganda documents), or through their proxies (of whom Abdul Karim was the most prominent of scores of Arab-educated hajis) – is oddly mimicked by similar events that appear to be taking place around the world today. The spiritual vigour behind today's Islamic militancy comes in large measure from the mosques of the Hadhramaut; and there are figures abroad today, Saudis and Yemenis both, who are every bit as defiantly anti-Western as was the East Indies' Haji Abdul Karim more than a century ago. The historical parallels are intriguing, and with implications that will keep scholars busy, no doubt, for many years.

The first two strikes on the soldiery of the Serang garrison turned out to be part of what would become a much larger plot. The planning was meticulous and took years – though the first suggestions of rebellion were made just after the eruption in 1883, the outbreak itself did not occur until five years later, July 1888.

In all cases the leaders and instigators were hajis – the rebellion was Islamic-inspired, Islamic-led. Teams of forty were selected. Oaths were demanded and offered, with all the participants solemnly agreeing, in writing, to perform the killing. Fighters were chosen, schooled in the techniques of pentjak – an East Indies version of fencing – and heavily armed with newly made swords and lances and the viciously sharp curved daggers called goloks, all of them made by sympathetic metal-workers in Batavia. White robes and white rag-turbans were made and collected for the warriors. Lists of targets – all of them European, all of them kafirs – were selected. Rumours were circulated that a Holy War was at hand, creating frightened apprehension among the Europeans, a mood of eager anticipation among the natives in their kampongs. Come the morning of Monday, 9 July 1888, and the stage was properly and fully set.

The first attack was made at a village called Sanedja, which today is a suburb of the industrial town of Cilegon.* Long before dawn teams of partisans cut the telegraph wires, blocked the escape roads, then at first light swarmed into the compounds of the various Europeans – the Assistant Resident, the salt-sales manager, the collector, the junior controller – and hacked them and their families down wherever they were found. There was nothing pretty about the assault, and little that was noble: the first family to fall victim was that of a clerk named Dumas: while he managed at first to escape through a window, his amah – whom the assailants mistook for his wife – was attacked with lances. The Dumas baby was sliced to pieces in her arms, and when the servant was later found she was alive but terribly lacerated, still cradling the dead infant. Dumas himself was later discovered sheltering with a Chinese: he was dragged outside and shot.

The prison was attacked and broken open, the inmates freed. The Assistant Resident, a man named Johan Hendrik Gubbels, was chased from one end of town to the other: his young daughter Elly was stoned to death, her head crushed with a boulder. Her sister Dora was hacked down and killed by men who, as the morning wore on, were increasingly frenzied, seemingly enjoying what was fast becoming an orgy of bloodletting. Gubbels himself was eventually found and stabbed to death. His body was dragged out into the open air for the rebels to see – and they howled their approval.

There were occasional acts of unexpected mercy. Mrs Dumas, for example, was found and – somewhat improbably – released after she had signed a paper saying she agreed to be converted to Islam. But otherwise the killing and sacking went on and on for hour after hour – until late in the day there arrived a full battalion of Dutch infantry and a squadron of cavalrymen. The infantrymen were armed with a new and quite terrifying weapon, just arrived from Holland: the repeating rifle. It was this weapon, above all else, that finished this fierce but, in the end, very brief rebellion.

The white-robed rebels believed, as Holy Warriors in any conflict are wont to do, that their piety would surely protect them against the Dutch bullets. But it did not. They died under the hail of Netherlands lead just as surely as would any godless infidel. And the Dutch military were quite evidently in the mood for killing that afternoon: when they opened fire with bullet after bullet, they did not intend to take prisoners. Thirty of the rebels were killed and thirteen more were wounded, out of a total of perhaps a couple of hundred. When the identities of the casualties were checked days later, almost all of them were found to be hajis, men who had waged war in the name of Allah the Merciful, as the legacy of their long-absent spiritual leader, Haji Abdul Karim.

The hajis' twenty-four victims were Hollanders and their Javan employees – kafirs too, in the eyes of the dagger-wielding fighters. There were civil servants, merchants, prison-warders, wives, daughters. They were regarded by the Muslims as the initial victims of what would be an eventual perang sabil, a Holy War, in which all trace of infidel behaviour and attitude – and people – would be rubbed out.

But, of course, no such thing happened. The rebellion had been crushed; an inquiry was staged; the Dutch slowly instituted reforms; taxation was eased; strictures on travel were relaxed; a new mood of tolerance and ethical standards took root. In the kampongs, talk of the Mahdi's coming evaporated, as did the fanatical mood for war. An accommodation – uneasy at first but more comfortable as the years progressed – was eventually reached between the competing requirements of the Muslim and the Christian faiths. The Peasants' Revolt of Banten faded in popular memory.

From today's perspective the rebellion is regarded very much as a way-station on the route to eventual Indonesian independence, the beginning of the end for this alien peculiarity of Dutch rule so very far from home. The Islam that had driven the Bantenese to fight so brutally in 1888 became, in time, more of an organizational structure for the coming revolution, and less the banner under which the revolutionaries might fight. But the Indonesia that was born in 1949 was a Muslim state, and it remains one today – with Islam in Java and Sumatra in a much more aggressive mood than it has been for a long, long time.

When the Muslims first turned aggressive, with the attacks on the soldiers in the late autumn of 1883, Krakatoa had just erupted, and the ruin and devastation that was its legacy made a wretched contribution to the miserable lives of millions of people around the Sunda Strait. Their misery was swiftly exploited – cynically, some might say – by the calculating Islamic leaders of the day. The melancholy condition of the Javanese and Sumatran peasantry was exploited by a corps of mullahs and scholars who had come back from their pilgrimages to Mecca and the Hadhramaut, eager to recruit like-minded East Indians to help wage an essential first strike against the godless Western infidels and kafirs who were posing such a threat to the purity of Islam.

To that degree, the eruption of Krakatoa did indeed help to ignite a political and religious movement that flared briefly and violently in Java, and that left an indelible mark on the polity of the East Indies. Had anyone been in prescient mood, the Banten rebellion might also have struck a tocsin note – a warning of similar events that could well occur very many years later.

The bombings that took so many lives on the island of Bali in the autumn of 2002, for example, seem a haunting echo of those happenings in north-western Java more than a hundred years before.