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


‘Wake up, wake up; you've got to get in the shade!’

I shook my head and opened my eyes again. There was a man kneeling over me. He wasn't a native, and didn't suggest an explorer or a traveller. He was wearing a correctly tailored white morning suit, with pinstripe pants, white ascot tie, and a white cork bowler.

‘Am I dead?’ I asked. ‘Is this heaven?’

‘No, my good man,’ he answered. ‘This isn't heaven. This is the Pacific island of Krakatoa.’

– from The Twenty-One Balloons,

by William Pène du Bois, 1947

Just after 8.32 on the crystal-clear Sunday morning of 18 May 1980, the long-awaited, universally expected eruption of Mount St Helens, in the south-western corner of Washington State, blew away the entire northern face of what was then America's most notorious volcano. The event turned out to be a classic of the volcanic art, camera-ready for the textbook: an ash cloud rising sixteen miles into the sky, and visible 200 miles away; the mountain's summit suddenly reduced in height by 1,300 feet; scores of square miles of countryside burned and devastated; 22,000 further square miles blanketed with debris; billions of trees swept flat; and fifty-seven people killed, most of them suffocated by clouds of boiling grit.

And yet, though the eruption of Mount St Helens – which was televised, filmed, photographed and chronicled in more loving detail than any other eruption in history – was to become briefly so very famous, it never even came close to dislodging Krakatoa from its position as the most notorious volcano of all time. For some curious reason – and part of that reason quite probably no more than the euphonious nature of the volcano's given name – the saga of Krakatoa has remained firmly and immovably welded into the popular mind.

The principal elements of the story of its great eruption of 27 August 1883 – the immense sound of the detonation, the unprecedented tidal waves, the death-rafts of drifting pumice, the livid sunsets – all still play their part in the world's collective consciousness. They remain annealed into the popular mind in a way that the spectacular eruptions of the planet's other truly great volcanoes, like Etna, Santorini, Tambora and St Pierre – and even the Vesuvius of Pliny and Pompeii – have still never quite managed to match.

Krakatoa – the name. That may well account for it. But there are other reasons too – among them the timely appearance of two items of popular culture relating to the event. One is a slim volume of a children's book, published to near-universal praise in 1947; the other, a Hollywood film released twenty years later to near-universal scorn. More than any other external factor, these two creations quite probably account in large measure for the extraordinary durability of the Krakatoa story.

The children's story was The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois: it won America's renowned Newbery Medal in 1948, and has never been out of print since. It tells the story of a maths teacher from San Francisco named William Waterman Sherman who flies in a balloon westwards across the Pacific, crash-landing (after seagulls pecked holes in the silk fabric) on what turns out to be ‘the Pacific island of Krakatoa’. Here the impeccably dressed locals are all fabulously rich, since the volcano in the island's centre sits directly on top of an immense diamond mine.

The resulting story is all about the Professor's adventures among the remarkable people of a utopia, which, because of the eruption of 1883, swiftly becomes a dangerous dystopia. All have to flee in a specially built balloon-lifted platform. The book – 180 pages, endearingly illustrated by its thirty-year-old author – is enchanting; most intelligent children will have read it, and they will in consequence know Krakatoa as, at the very least, a place both dangerous and beautiful, and wondrously exotic.

Children who were born in time to read the first editions of The Twenty-One Balloons would have been in their early thirties in the year 1969. They would thus have been a precise demographic target for one of Hollywood's archetypal B-movie directors, the otherwise little-known Bernard Kowalski, who in that year made the universally known, much derided, utterly improbable, irredeemably mediocre and magisterially mistitled epic Krakatoa, East of Java.*

The ensemble cast – Maximilian Schell, Diane Baker, Rossano Brazzi, Brian Keith and Sal Mineo among them – might possibly have saved a stronger script or storyline. But the sheer lunacy of the plot, which involved sunken treasure, wayward hot-air balloons, long-legged and half-naked female Japanese pearl-divers, escaped prisoners and a series of very obvious polystyrene models of a volcano, inevitably forced whatever grand vision Kowalski might have had to disintegrate into farce.

Despite the lavish technological promise offered by both Cinerama and Technicolor, the film performed very badly at the time, remains generally a cinematic joke today, and is thought of as merely a less costly precursor of such titanic disasters as Ishtar, Waterworld and Heaven's Gate. Krakatoa, East of Java can be seen very late at night on some obscure American television channels; by contrast in Britain, where for some reason the film still enjoys the status of a minor cult classic – a fondness for kitsch, some say – it was part of the expensive and much touted television schedules as recently as Christmas 2001.

In the late 1980s Lorne and Lawrence Blair, two seemingly indefatigable and irrepressibly enthusiastic British explorers,* produced a series of extraordinary television documentaries about the island of Indonesia called Ring of Fire. In the way of such things, the television company then produced a book (Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey, London, Inner Traditions International, 1991), which is copiously illustrated and informative. One of the films, cheekily titled East of Krakatoa, has two minutes of memorable footage of the early eruptions of Anak Krakatoa in the thirties.

In 1999 Channel Four showed an ambitious two-part television series based on David Keys's remarkable book Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World (London, Century, 1999), which, as Chapter Four indicates, speculates that an early eruption of Krakatoa may have thrown the entire known world of the time into profound disarray. The idea has supporters and detractors in equal measure: it ought to be read, sceptically, for a good analysis of the possible early history of the volcano.

There have been surprisingly few books about the volcano's 1883 eruption in recent years, other than an immense number of specialist and technical volumes. One of the few is Krakatoa by Rupert Furneaux (London, Secker & Warburg) – but it was published in 1965, an unfortunate two years before the establishment of the theory of plate tectonics arrived to answer all questions about why volcanoes erupt, and so the book has a necessarily limited value. It is, however, a stirring tale, and exceedingly well told, and I made liberal use of some of the eyewitness descriptions that Furneaux so assiduously dug out of various Dutch and maritime archives of the day. Ian Thornton's Krakatau: The Destruction and Reassembly of an Island Ecosystem (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1996) is thoroughly up to date and much more readable than its title suggests; but, on the other hand, it concentrates heavily on the biogeography of the island, which those hoping for the more general story may lament.

The enormous and well-nigh definitive Krakatau 1883: The Volcanic Eruption and Its Effects by the distinguished vulcanologists Tom Simkin and Richard S. Fiske (Washington, DC, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983) is required reading for anyone with a serious interest in the event and its aftermath: my own copy is thumbed to the point of near destruction. It has scores of illustrations, diagrams, tables and a vast bibliography, all of immense use to someone like me. But it is at heart a scientific book, and its appeal will tend to be limited to the specialist: the fact that no one ever answered the authors' appeal for yet more eyewitness descriptions suggests either that there are no more to be had (which is not true: at least two entirely fresh accounts appeared while I was doing my own research) or the audience for the book was limited to scientists and somehow missed the kind of people who hoard old letters and journals from long-dead relatives who once travelled Out East.

The Royal Society's famous report, The Eruption of Krakatoa and Subsequent Phenomena (London, Trübner & Co., 1888), can still be found, expensively, in antiquarian bookshops; as can the heroic Krakatau by R. D. M. Verbeek (Batavia, Government Printing Office, 1886), with copies available – at a price – in either Dutch or French. Simkin and Fiske very obligingly translated much of Verbeek's work into English (for the first time) in their own 1983 volume. Serious students of the volcano should make all possible attempts to read at least some of this marvellously enthusiastic work, in whatever language available.

Finally, in the must-read category: anyone with the available funds should buy for their shelves the massive, astonishingly detailed and beautifully written Encyclopedia of Volcanoes (San Diego, Academic Press, 2000), not least because it is edited by the Icelandic vulcanologist and world-renowned Krakatoa enthusiast, Haraldur Sigurdsson, presently a professor at the University of Rhode Island.

Other books I found useful and interesting included:

Abeyasekere, Susan, Jakarta: A History (Singapore, Oxford University Press, 1987)

Angelino, A. D. A. de Kat, Colonial Policy. Volume 2: The Dutch East Indies (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1931)

Armstrong, Karen, Islam: A Short History (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2000)

— Muhammad (London, Gollancz, 1991)

Bangs, Richard, and Kallen, Christian, Islands of Fire, Islands of Spice (San Francisco, Sierra Club Books, 1988)

Barty-King, Hugh, Girdle Round the Earth: The Story of Cable & Wireless and Its Predecessors to Mark the Group's Jubilee (London, Heinemann, 1979)

Berger, Meyer, The Story of the New York Times 1851–1951 (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1951)

Bertuchi, A. J., The Island of Rodriguez, a British Colony in the Mascarenhas Group (London, John Murray, 1923)

Blue, Gregory, Colonialism and the Modern World: Selected Studies (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 2002)

Blussé, Leonard, Strange Company: Chinese Settlers, Mestizo Women and the Dutch in VOC Batavia (Dordrecht, Foris Publications, 1988)

Bruce, Victoria, No Apparent Danger: The True Story of Volcanic Disaster at Galeras and Nevado del Ruiz (New York, HarperCollins, 2001)

Cardini, Franco, Europe and Islam (Oxford, Blackwell, 2001)

Carson, Rob, Mount St Helens: The Eruption and Recovery of a Volcano (Seattle, Sasquatch Books, 1990)

Clarke, Arthur C., Voice across the Sea (London, Frederick Muller Ltd, 1958)

Colijn, H., Neerlands Indie Land en Volk (Amsterdam, Elsevier, 1912)

Conrad, Joseph, An Outcast of the Islands (London, T. Fisher Unwin, 1896)

Couperus, Louis, The Hidden Force (Amherst, MA, University of Massachusetts Press, 1985)

Cribb, Robert, Historical Atlas of Indonesia (London, Curzon Press, 2000)

Daum, P. A., Ups and Downs of Life in the Indies (Singapore, Periplus 1999)

Daws, Gavin, and Fujita, Marty, Archipelago: The Islands of Indonesia (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999)

Decker, Robert, and Decker, Barbara, Volcanoes (New York, W. H. Freeman, 1979)

De Vries, H. M. (ed.), The Importance of Java Seen from the Air (Batavia, H. M. De Vries, 1928)

Fairchild, David, Garden Islands of the Great East (New York, Scribner, 1943)

Forster, Harold, Flowering Lotus: A View of Java in the 1950s (London, Longman, Green & Co., 1958)

Friederich, Walter L., Fire in the Sea. The Santorini Volcano: Natural History and the Legend of Atlantis (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Geertz, Clifford, The Religion of Java (New York, The Free Press, 1960)

Gilbert, J. S., and Sparks, R. S. J., The Physics of Explosive Volcanic Eruptions (London, Geological Society of London, 1998)

Haigh, K. R., Cableships and Submarine Cables (London, Adlard Coles, 1968)

Hall, R., and Blundell, D. J. (eds.), Tectonic Evolution of Southeast Asia (London, Geological Society of London, 1996)

Hamilton, Warren, Tectonics of the Indonesian Region (Washington, DC, US Geological Survey, 1979)

Helsdingen, W. H. van, and Hoogenberk, Dr H., Mission Interrup-ted: The Dutch in the East Indies and Their Work in the Twentieth Century (Amsterdam, Elsevier, 1945)

Heuken, Adolf, SJ, Historical Sites of Jakarta (Jakarta, Cipta Loka Caraka, 2000)

Hicks, Geoff, and Campbell, Hamish, Awesome Forces: The Natural Hazards that Threaten New Zealand (Wellington, NZ, Te Papa Press, 1998)

Hillen, Ernest, The Way of a Boy: A Memoir of Java (London, Viking, 1993)

Hobhouse, Henry, Seeds of Change: Five Plants that Transformed Mankind (London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985)

Huntington, Samuel P., The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (London, Simon & Schuster, 1997)

Johnson, George (ed.), The All Red Line: The Annals and Aims of the Pacific Cable Project (Ottawa, James Hope & Sons, 1903)

Kartodirdjo, Sartono, The Peasants' Revolt of Banten in 1888 (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1966)

Keay, John, Empire's End: A History of the Far East from High Colonialism to Hong Kong (New York, Scribner, 1997)

Kemp, P. H. van der, De Administratie der Geldmiddelen van Neer-land-Indie (The Financial Administration of the Dutch East Indies) (Amsterdam, J. H. de Bussy, 1881)

Keys, David, Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World (London, Century, 1999)

Krafft, Maurice, Volcanoes (New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1993)

Kuitenbrouwer, Maarten, The Netherlands and the Rise of Modern Imperialism (Providence, RI, Berg Publishers, 1991)

Kumar, Ann, The Diary of a Javanese Muslim: Religion, Politio and the Pesantren 1883–1886 (Canberra, Australian Nation Universit 1985)

Legge, J. D., Indonesia (New York, Prentice Hall, 1964)

Levelink, Jose, Four Guided Walks through the Bogor Botanic Garden (Bogor, Bogorindo Botanicus, 1996)

Lewis, Bernard, The Middle East: 2,000 Years of History from the Rise of Christianity to the Present Day (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995)

— What Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002)

Lucas, E. V., A Wanderer in Holland (London, Methuen & Co., 1905)

Merrillees, Scott, Batavia in Nineteenth-Century Photographs (London, Curzon Press, 2000)

Milton, Giles, Nathaniel's Nutmeg: How One Man's Courage Changed the Course of History (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1999)

Money, J. W. B., Java, or, How to Manage a Colony (London, Hurst & Blackett, 1861)

Multatuli [Dekker, Eduard Douwes], Max Havelaar, or The Coffee Auctions of a Dutch Trading Company (London, Heinemann, 1967)

Naipaul, V. S., Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (London, Little, Brown, 1998)

Netherlands Royal Mail Line, Java the Wonderland (Arnhem [n.d.])

Nieuwenhuys, Rob, Mirror of the Indies: A History of Dutch Colonial Literature (Hong Kong, Periplus, 1999)

— Faded Portraits: E. Breton de Nijs (Amherst, MA, University of Massachusetts Press, 1982)

Oey, Eric (ed.), Java (Singapore, Periplus, 1997)

Oosterzee, Penny van, When Worlds Collide: The Wallace Line (Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1997)

Oreskes, Naomi (ed.), Plate Tectonics (Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 2001)

Ponder, H. W., Javanese Panorama (London, Seeley, Service & Co. [1942])

Poortenaar, Jan, An Artist in the Tropics (London, Sampson Low [1927])

Pope-Hennessy, James, Verandah: Some Episodes in the Crown Colonies 1867–1889 (London, George Allen & Unwin, 1964)

Preger, W., Dutch Administration in the Netherlands Indies (Mel-bourne, F. W. Cheshire, 1944)

Quammen, David, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions (New York, Scribner, 1996)

Raby, Peter, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2001)

Raffles, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley, The History of Java (London, Black, Parbury & Allen, 1817)

Read, Donald, The Power of News: The History of Reuters 1849–1989 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1992)

Reitsma, S. A., Van Stockum's Travellers' Handbook for the Dutch East Indies (The Hague, W. P. van Stockum & Son, 1930)

Ross, Robert, and Winius, George, All of One Company: The VOC in Historical Perspective (Utrecht, HES Uitgivers, 1986)

SarDesai, D. R., Southeast Asia, Past and Present (Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1989)

Scarth, Alwyn, La Catastrophe: The Eruption of Mount Pelée (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002)

— Vulcan's Fury: Man against the Volcano (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1999)

Schama, Simon, Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Nether-lands 1780–1813 (London, Collins, 1977)

Schoch, Robert M., Voices of the Rocks: A Scientist Looks at Catas-trophes and Ancient Civilizations (New York, Harmony Books, 1999)

Scidmore, E. R., Java, the Garden of the East (New York, The Century Co., 1897)

Severin, Timothy, The Spice Islands Voyage: The Quest for Alfred Wallace, the Man Who Shared Darwin's Discovery of Evolution (New York, Carroll & Graf, 1997)

Shepard, Jim, Batting against Castro (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996)

Shermer, Michael, In Darwin's Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace (New York, Oxford University Press, 2002)

Sigurdsson, Haraldur, Melting the Earth: The History of Ideas on Volcanic Eruptions (New York, Oxford University Press, 1999)

Sitwell, Sacheverell, The Netherlands: A Study of Some Aspects of Art, Costume and Social Life (London, B. T. Batsford, 1948)

Soebadio, Dr Haryati, et al. (ed.), Indonesian Heritage Encyclopedia (10 vols. pub., Singapore, Editions Didier Millet, 1996 et seq.)

Standage, Tom, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's Online Pioneers (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998)

Stephens, Mitchell, A History of News: From the Drum to the Satellite (New York, Viking, 1988)

Suárez, Thomas, Early Mapping of Southeast Asia (Hong Kong, Periplus, 1999)

Taylor, Jean Gelman, The Social World of Batavia (Madison, WI, University of Wisconsin Press, 1983)

Thornton, Ian, Krakatau: The Destruction and Reassembly of an Island Ecosystem (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1996)

Turner, Peter (ed.), Java (Melbourne, Lonely Planet, 1995)

Umbgrove, J. H. F., Structural History of the East Indies (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1949)

Vandenbosch, Amry, The Dutch East Indies, Its Government, Prob-lems and Politics (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1941)

Vissering, G., Geweldige Natuurkrachten (Nature's Power) (Batavia, G. Kolff & Co., 1910)

Vlekke, Bernard M., Nusantara: A History of the East Indian Archipelago (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1945)

– The Story of the Dutch East Indies (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1945)

Wallace, Alfred Russel, The Malay Archipelago. The Land of the Orang-utan and the Bird of Paradise. A Narrative of Travel, with Studies of Man and Nature (London, Macmillan, 1869)

Weyer, Robert van de, Islam and the West: A New Political and Religious Order Post September 11 (Alresford, Hants, O Books, 2001)

Wilkinson-Latham, Robert J., From Our Special Correspondent (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1979)

Williams, Stanley, and Montaigne, Fen, Surviving Galeras (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2001)

Woodcock, George, The British in the Far East (New York, Atheneum, 1969)

Zebrowski, Jr., Ernest, The Last Days of St Pierre (Piscataway, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 2002)

Zeilinger de Boer, Jelle, and Sanders, Donald, Volcanoes in Human History (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 2002)

* Some botanists regard the clove as more properly Eugenia caryophyllata, though all agree it is part of the family Myrtaceae, of which the evergreen myrtle is the best known.

* 1603–25.

* The Papal Donation in essence gave' the exploitation of the Western world to Spain and of the East to Portugal. The Spaniards, who were seamen and navigators of equal skill, had under papal supervision agreed with the Portuguese on the division of the conquerable planet – drawing Pope Julius II's so-called Tordesillas Line along the meridian 370 leagues to the west of the Cape Verde Islands (approximately 48 degrees west of Greenwich). To the west of the Line, Spain had a free hand – hence Mexico, Chile, California; to its east – which crucially included the coast of Brazil – Portugal could freely operate its caravels. And since Africa, Asia and the islands of the Spice Route lay similarly to the east of the Tordesillas Line, so Portugal dominated the exploration of the East and, for a while, the European pepper trade too. The antimeridian of the Tordesillas Line appears in the East too, of course, at around 129 degrees east of Greenwich. Spain colonized the Philippines as a consequence; and Portugal won parts of New Guinea and Timor. The Papal Donation, which had its origins in a ruling from Pope Alexander VI in 1493, cast a very long shadow indeed.

* Both had been imprisoned for their pains. They were alleged to have stolen a number of Portuguese portolanos, the secret charts and sailing directions carried on all expeditions. No doubt, given the furtive nature of their employment as ‘commercial representatives’ of the van Verre group, they were guilty as charged.

* In many accounts this small north-west Javan port-city appears with its original Portuguese-given spelling, ‘Bantam’, which suggests, probably not wholly accurately, that the small and eponymous chickens that are actually believed to have first come from Japan originated there.

Maurice of Nassau, after whom another Dutch-settled island, Mauritius, was named.

* Included were a pair of Mediterranean-style rowing galleys, surely inconveniently lumbering beasts for handling in the open waters of the Bay of Bengal.

* Known also because one of its neighbour islands, Pulau Ran, was seized by the British and later swapped for a Dutch-held North American island, Pulau Manhattan.

* Modern navigational charts call what remains of the island Pulau Anakrakata. The official details of its ever changing condition can be found in this chapter's epigraph.

 As to why Krakatoa, and not the more properly Javanese Krakatau, it is said – but not proven – that this was a spelling mistake made in an early telegraphic cable to London – a spelling error that, thanks to British domination of so much nineteenth-century science and geography, came to be accepted for many years after as the preferred (but technically incorrect) spelling. Robert Cribb, editor of The Historical Atlas of Indonesia, wonders if the ending -oa simply sounded, to the British ear, more euphonious and charmingly like an idyll in the South Pacific. I shall revisit what is to some a very vexing matter in Chapter Six, when I look in more detail at those first telegraphic messages about the eruption.

* I have no wish to belabour a historical nicety that will be familiar to most, but it seems worth while pausing to underline the fine irony of the coming change of power-centres in the East. Since the early sixteenth century the Netherlands were in fact under Spanish control, as a province of the Spanish branch of the Hapsburgs. A revolt led by William of Orange ensured that the seven most northerly districts – including the best known, Holland, Zeeland and Friesland – became independent in 1579. In 1648, under the terms of the Treaty of Westphalia, Spain recognized the independence of these seven and an additional southern group of provinces as what was then called the Republic of the Netherlands, headed by members of the Orange-Nassau family as stadhouders, or governors. The Netherlands only became a monarchy – as it remains today – in 1815. What is now the Kingdom of Belgium – those additions that were to be known colloquially as the ‘Spanish Netherlands’ – split back away in 1830. The sudden rush of Dutch colonial energies and anti-Iberian zeal in the 1600s came just after their first emergence from under the yoke of Spain.

* And well beyond – Dutch outposts in Japan, Formosa, India, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mauritius, Ceylon, even the Cape Colony in southern Africa were all, at various times, run from this Javanese HQ.

* The governor-general soon took on airs: he used to walk around town with an umbrella-carrier, a dozen halberdiers and a detachment of sentries armed with muskets.

* And who under the peculiar rules of the VOC were, as Christians, permitted to wear hats: the only non-whites in Batavia allowed to do so. †When slavery was abolished in the Dutch East Indies it was still widespread in America. Indeed the final slave ship, the Clothilde, had arrived in Alabama's Mobile Bay with her grim cargo only a few months before.

* The third and present incarnation of the Batavia Stadhuis, built in 1707, remains intact, serving as the Jakarta History Museum.

* Evidence both geological (fresh lava flows on the island) and anecdotal (references in Javanese oral histories) suggests that Krakatoa had erupted as many as ten times prior to whatever happened in 1680. Few of the dates of these previous eruptions can be pinned down with any certainty.

* Or he may have been on international duty, journeying to and from the British possessions in India: the record is not clear as to whether the Aardenburgh's destination was Bengal or a Sumatran port named Bengalen.

* Helena Blavatsky, the creator of the genial Hindu–Buddhist religion called Theosophy, seized, upon Lemuria as the likely home for a people she insisted were the Third Root of Mankind. As she described them, they lacked classical beauty: they were fifteen feet tall, brown-skinned hermaphrodites with four arms, some possessing a third eye in the back of the skull. Their feet had protruding heels enabling them to walk either forward or backward, and their eyes were sited so they could see sideways.

* The spelling was an error by Usk's Registrar of Births; Wallace also long thought, to compound the mistake, that he had been born on 8 January 1822 – it was in fact 1823.

 This was the title of a 1966 biography of Wallace by Amabel Williams-Ellis: well known as a Strachey, the editor of a number of science-fiction anthologies for Victor Gollancz, and the wife of the Portmeirion architect and stylish eccentric Clough Williams-Ellis.

* With a descendant of Charles Darwin on hand to observe.

* At my school we were more than familiar with at least the shape of the Celebes, since its long, finger-like upper peninsula runs almost exactly along the equator, and thus provided us (as did Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon on the other side of the planet) with an easy way of drawing the line of zero latitude on to any blank map of the world.

* He is memorialized by the names of two rare ice-crystal halo arcs and by the magnificent eponym of the Wegener-Bergeron-Findeisen procedure, the mechanism that creates the peculiar shape of raindrops, which Wegener helped to discover.

* Francis Bacon, the philosopher, wrote about the ‘fit’ as far back as 1620; the great French naturalist the Comte de Buffon, author of a majestic 36-volume Natural History, a pioneering palaeontologist who suggested that geological history had developed in a series of identifiable stages, speculated on the reason in 1778; and in 1858 a noted catastrophist named Antonio Snider-Pellagrini went so far as to propose that a single continent had once existed and then broken up, its parts torn away from one another to create today's arrangement. Eduard Seuss, an Austrian, posited the existence of a Gondwanaland in 1885 – but to create the oceans he imagined sinking and foundering, not creeping and drifting. An American geologist named Frank Taylor wrote in 1908 about the likelihood of continents inching towards the equator. But few of these men are now remembered for their geology; and Wegener was soon to be rudely rebuffed for his.

 For a while he and his brother Kurt held the world hot-air balloon endurance record, at 56 hours.

* This was necessary because of an added complication: the lines of magnetism in very high latitudes in northern North America (of which Greenland is, technically, a part) are so close, and vary so wildly each year, that a normal magnetic compass is worse than useless. All fishermen and navigators working these waters know this well; we suspected it might be the case, and decided in Oxford to obtain all our alignment readings via the one true invariable, the position of the sun.

* Vening Meinesz was a rather over-large person, uncomfortable in a small submarine. The captain had to remind his crew to draw in their breath every time the good doctor sat down.

* The idea of remanent magnetism was first put forward by Pierre Curie, who discovered that rocks that are cooled in a magnetic field assume the polarity and direction of that field as they do so. The crucial temperature at which the magnetism is locked in (for study by later geologists) is known as the Curie point, and varies from rock type to rock type – 582 °C for the mineral magnetite.

* The instrument was originally designed to be mounted in a low-flying aircraft, with the aim of detecting enemy submarines in the waters below: its acronym, MAD, indicated it was a magnetic airborne detector. It was easy enough to modify the instrument so that it could be towed behind a ship in the water itself, by placing it inside a fish-shaped, non-magnetic container.

* And which showed, for every ocean, ridges where new sea-floor was being made, and giant rafts of magnetized rock moving steadily away from them – the Atlantic Ocean being by far the most spectacularly regular of them all.

* ‘History of Ocean Basins’ in Petrologic Studies: A Volume in Honor of A. F. Buddington, Geological Society of America, pp. 599–620.

* As in an essay by William Dickinson, emeritus professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona: ‘In my youth as a geoscientist I was a casual stabilist, assuming that the continents had maintained their relative positions on the globe throughout geologic time. That outmoded stance stemmed less from informed conviction than from sheer ignorance.’ Professor Dickinson is now a leading evangelist for the theory, and has as one of his proudest possessions a plate – of china – given to him and adorned with the motto Hero of Plate Tectonics and In Subduction We Trust.

* Geographical place-names present a problem that is peculiarly endemic to those scores of places that have suffered under history's various colonial yokes, and often result in places having been given three names – the early indigenous name, the colonially applied name and then its post-colonial successor. The islands that make up the Krakatoa group display this complexity: Panjang – the Ur-name – first became Lang Island, and is now Rakata Kecil; Sertung became Verlaten (lonely, forsaken island) during Dutch times, and is currently back to being Sertung. Mercifully for this footnote, which would be further awash in explication, the island in the group that had the English name Polish Hat no longer exists, since it disappeared, a victim of the eruption.

* Building among other monuments the immense and ornate temple of Borobudur, the world's largest Buddhist structure.

* By dint of writing three pages every day for thirty years, he wrote six million words, all in the elaborate language known as Court Javanese. The supposed reference to a possible fifth-century eruption of Krakatoa appears in an early part of Ranggawarsita's history, called ‘The Book of Ancient Kings’, the ‘Pustaka Raja Purwah’.

* By the time Ranggawarsita was writing, the name Krakatoa, or at the very least Krakatau, was in common use. So it is puzzling that he chose to use the name Kapi, unless of course it was a direct transliteration of the original documents he was using for his research.

 According to an English translation published in Nature – then awash in narratives of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa – in August 1889.

* Volcanoes that eject immense amounts of dust into the atmosphere leave behind two kinds of easily recognizable signature. Slender bands of the deposited dust can be found trapped in ice-cores. And – because the dust causes a filtering of the sun and a lowering of worldwide ambient temperatures – there is also evidence that the growth of trees is at the same time briefly slowed. Tree rings appear much closer together in the cooler years, when there is slower growth. So the ring record provides a neat and easy way (providing always that a cut tree of suitable antiquity is at hand) of establishing the climatic record for hundreds of past years.

* Financed by the British television company, Channel Four.

* The locals liked to use the beaches for their ablutions.

* The western trees – mainly dipterocarps, with winged sepals – are very different from the eucalypts and gum-trees that are found in the forests of the eastern islands. The former are distinctly Asian species, the latter Australian, separated by a Wallace Line of their own, echoing as one would expect the distribution of the islands' other living beings, such as the cassowaries, cockatoos, thrushes, kangaroos and apes.

* France and the newborn United States of America concluded their own peace with Britain; Holland, however, kept fighting for some while more, placing still heavier burdens on her faraway colonials.

* Although Raffles is best known for having essentially founded Singapore, he was also lieutenant-governor of the East Indies from 1811 to 1816, Java's brief British-ruled interregnum during the Napoleonic Wars. The Dutch have long since accepted with equanimity the five years of their territory's rule from British Calcutta: a portrait of Lord Minto – Raffles's superior – hangs today without remark among other Dutch governors-general in the Regents' Room of the old Dutch Colonial Office in The Hague. Lady Raffles is buried in a pretty Grecian tomb in the Botanical Gardens at Bogor, south of Jakarta. Her husband is memorialized in many ways: by having discovered and restored the marvellous Buddhist temple at Borobudur, in central Java; by having written a near-definitive History of Java; and by having named after him the planet's largest flower, Rafflesia arnoldii, which has blooms a yard wide, weighs as much as twenty-four pounds, and has a memorably horrible smell.

* Sukarno's private study is dominated by an immense oil painting of happy-looking workers toiling in a Russian soviet. It was the gift of a visiting politburo chief, and an indication of the clear left-wing leanings of the man who was eventually to be replaced by General Suharto in an American-backed coup d'état, which led to the corruption and civil strife that disfigure Indonesia still.

* There was a tall monument to the victory at Waterloo (Willem's father had been Dutch commander in the field) surmounted by a very small lion – so small that it was regarded with amused contempt by most Batavians, who thought it looked like a poodle.

* The birds, reported the Illustrated London News of the day, invariably died as soon as the ship encountered chilly weather: very few made it all the way to Europe.

* A contrôleur was one of the more junior grades in the Dutch colonial service, presiding over a subdivision of a Residency known as an afdeling, or department; but junior or no, a candidate had to spend four years at the College of Delft and pass with honours a rigorous examination that included the Javanese and Malay languages (both very similar, to be sure), French, German and English language and literature, Islamic law, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, geology (no doubt helpful for his present task), drawing, land surveying and levelling as well as a host of other easier disciplines including, for some less explicable reason, the subtle mysteries of ‘Italian book-keeping’. An official warning of troublesome seismic activity sent by a contrôleur would certainly cause senior members of the colonial administration to sit up and take notice.

* German commercial and military interests in the Far East were growing fast in the late 1880s, not least because the Manchus in Peking's Forbidden City had been vastly impressed by the Prussian-led strengthening of the Reich after 1871, and had asked the Germans to help modernize their own armed forces. Matters were soon to turn sour, however; and in 1898 Germany annexed for her own naval use – for vessels like the Elisabeth – the port of Tsingtao on the Shandong peninsula. The influence of the next fifteen years of German rule lingers still: German architecture remains highly visible in the town today, and Tsingtao beer, one of China's better-known exports, was for years prepared under the supervision of a Bavarian Braumeister.

* This summit, Rakata, lay at the southern end of Krakatoa and, since it was by far the highest point, was the most visible feature of the thickly forested, lozenge-shaped island, which measured about six miles along its north–south axis, and was at its widest point in the south some two miles across. The other high points, apparent only on a close inspection, were Danan, a cratered peak in the middle of the island rising to 1,496 feet, and Perboewatan, on the narrow northern end of the island, which was 399 feet high. Two other islands are associated – Lang Island lying two miles to the north-east, Verlaten a similar distance off to the west. Both, as suggested before, are probably relics of an even greater super-Krakatoa of earlier times.

* To get into the Sunda Strait the Zeeland, like all other vessels passing along this great waterway connecting the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, had perforce to skirt around another – non-eruptive – island that seemed almost to block the northern entrance to the channel. The island is known today as Pulau Sangiang. In the nineteenth century, however, at a time when so many of the coastal features sported English names – Pepper Bay, Welcome Bay, First Point, Java Head and Polish Hat are all along the Sunda Strait – this navigational nuisance of rock and forest was officially called, on the Admiralty charts, Thwart-the-Way Island.

* The agent was named Mr Schuit. But there is ample opportunity for confusion ahead, for in Anjer at the same time there happened to be a lighthouse keeper also called Mr Schuit, an unrelated widow-woman named Mrs Schuit and a newly appointed telegraph-master who was called Mr Schruit. Since all played major roles in the August cataclysm, it is as well to be forewarned.

* Which he later said was for no more than ‘a couple of hours’.

* The Ancient Romans used shards of Vesuvius obsidian as razors, since the rock had the property of fracturing with extremely sharp edges.

* The timetables of the various shipping lines that served the region make for delightful reading. The Netherlands Royal Mail Line, founded in 1870, ‘maintains a regular fortnightly service between Europe and Java, leaving Amsterdam every alternate Saturday, calling at Southampton, Lisbon, Genoa, Port-Saïd, Suez, Colombo (occasionally), Sabang (Sumatra), Singapore and the beautiful island of Java as terminus. (Batavia, Samarang, Sourabaya, etc.) The best-equipped and most comfortable liners of today. Excellent cuisine. They carry the Royal Netherlands and Royal Italian mails to the Far East.’ The single fare from Southampton's Extension Pier (leaving every other Tuesday at a time that connected with the London boat train from Waterloo) was £65.

* That he was up and about at 3 a.m. suggests either that he had learned enough about the May eruptions, presumably from his stops in various ports like Port Said and Singapore, to be wanting to catch a glimpse, or that he was a chronic insomniac.

* The phrase was born in the foreword to a book called Explorations in Communication, published in 1960:

* Post-literate man's electronic media contract the world to a village or tribe where everything happens to everyone at the same time: everyone knows about, and therefore participates in, everything that is happening the minute it happens. Television gives this quality of simultaneity to events in the global village.

* The telegraphic transmission of news about Krakatoa, disseminated simultaneously throughout the entire newspaper-reading world, had much the same effect.

* The vexatious question of the proper spelling of the island arises here, not surprisingly, given that within the space of a single day, because of the telegraphic equivalent of Chinese whispers, the spelling changed from Krakatau to Krakatan (probably a misreading of Agent Schuit's handwriting) to the rather puzzlingly elaborate Krakatowa. By the next day, however, 25 May 1883, The Times had settled for Krakatoa, which is how the name of the mountain has remained, in most of the English-speaking world, for most of the following century, and since. An anniversary book published in 1983 tried gamely to turn its back on all but the supposedly proper spelling of Krakatau; but the old wrong-headed one persists, despite all best efforts to do away with it. Searching for the possible orthographic villains in the piece: the Lloyd's men seem innocent; the telegraph operators may have made an honest mistake; a Times subeditor working that night with the Lloyd's copy seems to have made one executive decision on the first night – Krakatowa – and then changed it the night after. All told, the newspapermen seem to have made the greater error – but in doing so created a name that has stuck.

* The telegraph office was a pair of single-storeyed buildings that still stand and now form the core of a convent for Jakarta's Ursuline nuns.

* Well fortified and ‘known for its mud volcanoes’, according to the 1882 Lippincott Gazetteer.

 The Emden was also, coincidentally, the name of the German surface raider that ransacked the cable station on Cocos Island, off southern Java, in 1916.

* In 1917 The Times started producing a limited-run late edition on very high-quality paper that was christened the Library Edition. Five years later this was renamed the Royal Edition, and it was printed every day – except for a pause during the Second World War – until formally abandoned for budgetary reasons at the end of 1969.

 A Times columnist named Edward Sterling, known for his trenchant editorializing, wrote in 1829 that his paper had ‘thundered out' in support of social and political reform – the phrase was widely noticed, and for at least the next century and a half the epithet stuck.

* From the surname Josaphat.

* These subsequent items settled on Krakatoa as the volcano's name.

* The Resident, who at the time of the eruption was a Mr van Spaan, administered the region from the headquarters of the Residency in Bantam, thirty miles away. Anjer town itself merited only an Assistant, a Mr Thomas Buijs, who died in the disaster.

* It was the International Meridian Conference held in Washington, DC, in 1884 that formally established the system of twenty-four time zones, each of which were essentially fifteen degrees wide (though which had deviations around countries, states and islands, where necessary, for neatness and convenience). The International Date Line was also set to run from pole to pole through the Pacific, though it had to be jiggled about because of various mid-Pacific islands that turned out not to exist. The whole notion of time zones was essentially the brainchild of a man named Charles Dowd, principal of a women's college in Saratoga Springs, New York, who wore his beard and hair in a design that perfectly emulated his hero, Abraham Lincoln.

* In an 1884 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, in a long interview conducted in San Francisco (to where the Charles Bal sailed after visiting Hong Kong) by the journalist E. W. Sturdy.

* This is the old name for those spheres of charged and luminous electrical clouds – known commonly to sailors as St Elmo's fire – frequently seen about the masts of sailing ships during storms. The word comes from corpus sanctum, ‘holy body' – a reminder that in peril a sailor can do aught but put his trust in God.

* Not the least of which was an endemic South American leaf blight caused by Michocyclus ulei. The five plants sent on the Berbice were free of blight, and the plantations of South-East Asia have still not yet been infected, which many regard as akin to a miracle.

* This was the kind of man whose like we do not see today. A London-born Passionist minister, amateur geologist and naturalist, he was compelled by ill-health to move abroad when he was in his twenties, and became an expert on the conchology and palaeontology of Tasmania during the time he worked as a travelling missionary for the Catholic archbishop of Sydney. He left the priesthood in 1883, when he was fifty-one, and travelled to Malaya, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies – where he became fascinated by the eruption of Krakatoa – and then on to the Philippines, China and Japan. He returned to Australia and died in Sydney six years later, in 1889 – ‘a man of wide culture, a musician, an artist, and something of a poet’, as well as a writer of hymns, the author of a book on the fishes of New South Wales, another on the history of Australia, and more than 150 other contributions to the scientific literature.

* These reports were also collected by Tenison-Woods, a reliable and properly disinterested observer.

* For some unexplained reason, Mr Hatfield left little by way of an interesting record of the Krakatoa events – and his report of the ash fall, which he timed much later than Tenison-Woods's very detailed and exact description (‘pale yellow… gloomy… very dense’), suggests that certain of his consular faculties might have been wanting.

* Note that the consul spells the volcano's name correctly: as already suggested, the misspelling Krakatoa seems more a consequence of the carelessness of journalism than diplomacy. However, in the same paragraph Cameron makes an error with his dates. Even Homer nods.

* The term sea-wave, or its Japanese equivalent, tsunami, is now generally preferred by the scientific community; tidal wave, a term that yet survives, is condemned as inaccurate, since the waves caused by earthquakes or volcanoes are in no sense tidal:

* There were precious few survivors: the best known was a prisoner named Louis-Auguste Ciparis (or Sylbaris), who was in solitary confinement in an evidently well-insulated and nearly airtight cell. When found to be a survivor a miracle was promptly declared and he was set free. Barnum & Bailey had him perform in their travelling circus for some years before he got into trouble again and ended up in an American jail. He was fired from the circus when people lost interest, and died a pauper in Panama in 1955. His cell in St Pierre still stands as a tourist attraction; visitors are taken there in a bus called the Ciparis Express.

* It seems now a measure of the Chinese labourer's legendary tolerance for appalling working conditions that so many were still hewing stone in Merak, despite the terrifying nearby concussions, to say nothing of the flames and the clouds of ash.

* The speed of a tsunami is directly proportional to the square root of the depth of sea through which it travels. In mid ocean, where the depths are measured in thousands or tens of thousands of feet, it can move at speeds of up to 500 mph; where the water is 900 feet deep it will slow to 115 mph. In the Sunda Strait, where the water depth varies from about 500 feet in mid channel to twenty feet and less at the edges, the speed of travel appears to have averaged about 60 mph. When a fast-moving deep-sea wave encounters the shore, it changes shape drastically: out in mid ocean it will be fast moving but only a few feet high; as it reaches shore it will slow down, pile up on top of itself and very swiftly become enormous. A wave generated by Krakatoa might have started out with a height of ten feet and a speed of 100 mph; when it got to Telok Betong, or Anjer, or Merak, it may then have slowed to only 20 mph –but it could have been as tall as a ten-storey building, with frightening consequences for anything or anyone in its path.

 The nearest land is Point Tikus in southern Sumatra, on the west side of Lampong Bay – but happily it is in the shelter of a small island, which would slow the wave's momentum.

*. The accuracy of these figures comes from the Royal Society report, which calculates the speed of the onrushing waves as the square root of the product of gravity and the water depth, V = √gh. The Dutch mining engineer Verbeek came up with slightly different figures and used a more complicated equation to find V, the wave speed: V = √g/2h(h + E)(2h + E), where g is gravity, h the water depth and ε the height of the wave crest above normal.

* A wedono was an indigenous colonial official of almost the same rank as the European contrôleur, who acted as his district officer. Dual administrative rule was a permanent feature of Dutch colonialism – a native official called a regent supposedly worked alongside the Dutch Resident, for example – and, provided both sides acknowledged where the power truly lay, the system generally worked well.

* This is the skerry that British Admiralty charts were wont to call Thwart-the-Way. Mr McColl, just like Consul Cameron, was wrong to suggest it had split: it retains its insular integrity to this day, sitting smugly as a large navigational hazard at the northern entrance to the Strait.

 This also turned out to be untrue.

* He was also a world expert on the poisonous bites of the tarantula.

* Diego Garcia has an exceptionally unhappy recent history. To help the US create what is presently its most strategically important overseas base, the British in 1970 leased the Americans the islands, assuring the Pentagon they were uninhabited – when officials in Whitehall knew this to be palpably untrue. The 2,000 islanders were forcibly removed to Mauritius, to make way for the base. In 2001 the High Court in London ruled their exile illegal and suggested they be allowed to reclaim their former lands.

* Daly Waters, with a current population of about thirty-five, once had Australia's first international airfield, since Qantas used it as a refuelling stop. The telegraph cable from Singapore and Batavia once terminated here, and a pony express would, until 1872, take messages further south across the desert to where the cable to Sydney began once again.

 The Hammersleys are now the site of one of the world's largest iron-ore mines, at Mount Newman.

* From whence came the eponymous sweet-smelling hair-oil, the bane of countless English chair backs and the cause of the creation of the protective lace furniture shroud called, somewhat unoriginally, an antimacassar.

* The thirteen-member committee was esteemed in the extreme: among the members was the hydrographer of the navy, the great geologists Archibald Geikie and Thomas Bonney, the physicist who discovered fluorescence, Sir George Stokes, and the aforementioned General Richard Strachey, who was such a towering figure of Indian engineering that he had a bridge over the River Jumna named after him.

* Sir George Darwin's contribution to science was mostly theories that were later to be disproven. Most egregiously he calculated mathematically that the moon was created by being torn away from the cooling earth – an idea now universally discredited. He also wrote papers on contemporary fashion, and claimed never to do more than three hours' work a day.

* That this particular wave was so unusually large is hardly surprising: the coastline between Durban and Port Elizabeth is notorious for giant waves, caused when northbound Antarctic storm systems slam into the southwesterly-flowing Agulhas Current, concentrating the confused water into shallows above a peculiarly narrow continental shelf. It is one of the most hazardous coastlines in the world – and the arrival in 1883 of a four-foot Krakatoa-induced tidal wave would have only served to remind local mariners about sorrows, single spies and battalions.

* It has long been supposed, but never proven, that J. M. W. Turner, whose impressions of sunsets made him an international institution, was painting evening skies coloured by the aftermath of the 1815 eruption of Tambora. The link between Krakatoa and the sunsets of the late 1880s is well established; the similar effects of Tambora can only be surmised, with Turner's paintings usually offered as evidence.

* It is privately owned by a collector in Philadelphia.

* This was the Reverend Sereno Bishop, who while sporting a name well known in Hawaii where he worked as a missionary, was not related to the founder of Honolulu's famous Bishop Museum.

 The stratosphere, a band of near-vacuum that lies between about eleven and thirty miles above the earth's surface, differs from the lower band of the troposphere in one important way: while the temperature declines steadily with height in the troposphere (as any climber or flier well knows), it does not do so in the lower reaches of the stratosphere. And in its upper few miles the temperature, so long as the sunlight is not cut off by the earth's shadow, actually begins to climb.

* When a centenary study of the eruption was published in Washington by the Smithsonian Institution in 1983, members of the public were similarly asked to send in reports of anything to do with the eruption. The editors received not a single response.

* Though the phrase ‘blue moon' dates back to the sixteenth century at least, and has no connection.

* Of baseball's World Series fame.

* He was at the time – 1784 – the first American ambassador to France.

 Gilbert White's Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, an essential bedtime companion for many an English reader, mentions the weather during the summer of 1783 as being unusually cold, with his Hampshire village experiencing ‘thick ice on 5 th May’.

* Zanzibar, a British Crown protectorate, became the empire's leading producer of cloves, after seeds were brought from the Spice Islands of the Dutch East Indies in 1818.

* Sir Harold was one of the last hold-outs against the theory of continental drift, writing into the late 1950s that the earth's crust was simply too rigid to permit it. He was widely regarded as a brilliant figure – an expert on the monsoon, and on the physics of cyclones – but was a memorably bad lecturer, devoting much time to the dynamics of boiling porridge and confiding its secrets not to his Cambridge classes, but to passers-by outside the open window to whom he customarily spoke. Like George Darwin, mentioned earlier, he also held the Plumian Chair in Astronomy.

* This is a complex subject, well beyond the scope of this story: since it involves phrases and concepts such as enthalpy, adiabatics, isobaric entropy and mole fractions, this is perhaps just as well. However, it is vitally important to a proper understanding of plate tectonics, and I have included references to useful books on the topic in the ‘Recommendations for Further Reading’.

 Mount Nyiragongo, in the East African Rift, is one of the more malign of the volcanoes to be found at a place where plates are pulling apart from one another. The lava flows are immense and unpredictable (though the calamitous eruption of 2002 happened to have been predicted, accurately, by an unpaid and heroic Congolese vulcanologist named Dieudonné Wafula, whose reports were widely ignored), and its gas emissions kill people and wildlife, including large numbers of elephants, who are suffocated and then covered with a thin coat of lava.

* From which comes the word andesite, one of the more common indicator-rocks found in a typical subduction-zone volcano.

 Despite its generally unfamiliar name, this rather small Peruvian volcano had one of the biggest eruptions in world history, in February 1600 – creating a ‘spike’ in Greenland ice-cores rarely equalled, even by Tambora and Krakatoa.

* Krakatoa, by Rupert Furneaux, had the unfortunate distinction of being published in 1965, almost on the eve of the announcement of the discovery of plate tectonics.

* The Indian Mutiny – or the First War of Indian Independence, as it is called retrospectively in the subcontinent – took place in 1857 and, though eventually quelled, was a sure indication that the writing was on the wall for the British in India, as well, in time, as for the rule of foreign settlers elsewhere around the world.

* A mere coincidence, the government insisted.

* Three times during the 1880s there was what was called a Haj Akbar, a ‘Great Haj’, when the ceremonies on Mecca's Plain of Arafat happened to take place on a Friday. Such a haj occurred in 1880: no fewer than 9,544 Javan and Sumatran pilgrims took part that year, with Banten supplying by far the greatest proportion.

* Most notably in the Sudan, where between 1880 and 1885 a number of insurrectionary leaders described themselves as Mahdis, and caused enormous political and social unrest.

* He left in 1876, given the kind of send-off one might expect for a pope or a saint.

* The pesantren were Islamic boarding-schools or seminaries that still exist in large numbers across modern Indonesia. They exerted a powerful influence on the attempt to spread Muslim orthodoxy and dogma in the nineteenth-century East Indies, and have considerable social force still. That Indonesian Islam is so mild remains irksome to the pesantren leaders: their eventual hope is to bring the stray sheep of Java and Sumatra fully back into the Muslim fold.

* The site today of the enormous Krakatoa Iron & Steel Works.

* A concentration of escaping gas from the seabed can, in certain circumstances, create a zone of negative buoyancy, where passing ships are at risk of sinking. This happened in the 1970s when a seabed gas well in the North Sea fractured, and an inverted cone of small bubbles rose from it to form, at the surface, half a square mile that was more gas than water, and not at all buoyant. Moreover, the escaping gas was highly flammable, which nicely doubled the hazard.

* It will be recalled that the 1883 eruption threw up a pair of low spits to the north of the ruins, which were called Steers and Calmeyer Islands. The breakers had eroded Calmeyer back down to sea-level at the time of a visit in May 1884, and Steers lingered only until the end of the same year. At the time of the renewed volcanic activity in the twenties all that remained of them was a pair of oddly shaped and navigationally inconvenient shallows. † The crater lake in the caldera of the notoriously destructive Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines has a similar hot spot above a vent; steam hangs above the lake at this point, and up close the water hisses with bubbles and is hot to the touch. I once paddled a plastic canoe into the hot zone, and it began to melt, sagging alarmingly under my weight.

* He later built a concrete and corrugated iron bunker on Panjang Island, to the north-east, from which to view the new activity.

* The question of whether all life was totally destroyed, and whether the remnants of Krakatoa were totally sterile, remains open. Certainly all initial science undertaken on the islands assumed that life had been wiped out. But in later years this view was challenged, and severely.

* Less famed for its artistic quality than for the fact that it is the only known drawing depicting Krakatoa's pre-eruption botany.

 The expedition was in cheerless mood ever since Cook himself had been killed, in Hawaii, some months before.

* Southern Californians became briefly alarmed in the early autumn of 2002 when clouds of ballooning spiders wafted onshore from the Pacific. After the terrorist attacks of the year before, puzzling phenomena like this became suddenly invested with sinister overtones.

* More than twenty-four feet long, and a very powerful swimmer, easily able to reach the island from the mainland.

* These are in fact a kind of wasp.

* There is an early sepia photograph of a coconut's half-shell lying on an ash beach, with a stalk sprouting a leaf and rising from its upper side, a pale root feeling its way into what passes for earth (see illustration on p. 358).

* Backer had himself been at first easily and lazily convinced of the likelihood of total annihilation of all life. But then came evidence to the contrary – most notably, twenty-two years after the eruption, the discovery of a cycad, a plant that looks like a cross between a palm and a fern, which seemed much too large for something that had grown entirely from scratch. The idea that this might have been a survivor of the blasts set Backer thinking – and it ended up completely changing his mind.

* Although modern ecologists are still fascinated by and so still debate the question, a consensus appears lately to have emerged: that while perhaps some species did survive the cataclysm, rendering the Krakatoa relics less than totally sterile, there probably was not enough relic life to ‘mess up’ nature's experiment – conducted in full view of a fascinated world – in what was effectively true primary colonization and then the steady succession of the plants and animals that did that colonizing.

* It is perhaps not too far-fetched to suppose that one primitive life form could have survived the birth of Anak Krakatoa, and that is the kind of heat-loving bacteria that clusters around the hydrothermal deep-ocean sulphurous vents known as black smokers. These creatures, which are magnificently known as chemolithoautotrophic hyperthermophilic archaebacteria, are thought to be similar to the first life forms that were ever on this planet, which lived in the ancient seas of three and four billion years ago. None is known to have been found so far on Anak Krakatoa; and this part of the Sunda Strait remains too dangerous and unstable for the kind of submarine investigation that would be necessary to prove their existence clustered around old Krakatoa's still-active vents, if there are any.

 Dammerman's modesty and reticence are memorialized in a mollusc that he discovered, which is named Thiara carolitaciturni – one of the rare examples of a nomenclature honouring a persona rather than a person.

* Bristowe is perhaps the most famous figure in the spider world, known for calculating that the weight of insects devoured by British spiders in an average year exceeds the total weight of all British people combined.

* The Arthropoda is a vast division of the animal kingdom, and includes both spiders and insects.

* It is often the case, as here, that Indonesians have just one name. The prefix mas is simply an honorific, akin to ‘brother’, and is a way of describing and addressing one who is younger than oneself. Had Sikin been much older, he would have been deserving of the title bapak, or its more widely diminutive pak, meaning ‘father’.

* The Krakatoa archipelago is a detached part of the Ujung Kulon National Park, most of which includes the peninsula in Java to the south of the islands and known as Java Head. The one-horned Javan rhinoceros is plentiful in the park. One of the long-term benefits of the 1883 eruption has been the reluctance of a superstitious people to live and settle in large numbers anywhere near the volcano – a reluctance that has protected a very rare species from what would otherwise have been, in the face of population pressure, almost certain extinction.

* The formal end of Dutch rule came four years later, just after Christmas 1949. The August date is none the less the preferred time for celebration.

* In size and shape Anak Krakatoa looks much like one of its immediate successors, the island of Surtsey, off the south coast of Iceland. It was created in 1963, now has grazing animals and, perhaps in time, will have a human population too. There are even newer islands, however, all of them volcanoes: an island appeared near Iwo Jima in 1986, and the Japanese christened it Fukoto Kuokanaba; an islet near the Metis Shoal in Tonga's Vava'u Group appeared in 1995 and was named in honour of the then much favoured rugby international Jonah Lomu; and in 2000 an undersea volcano named Kavachi erupted in the Solomons – this may yet consolidate as the world's youngest island.

* Mr Kowalski directed some fourteen films and countless episodes of popular American television shows. Prior to Krakatoa, East of Java he made Bucket of Blood, Screaming Skull and Attack of the Giant Leeches; four years after Krakatoa he directed an epic, which presumably involved the activities of dangerous snakes, called Sssssss. The director is, however, not entirely responsible for siting the volcano at the wrong end of Java: his film was based on a book of the same name by an even more obscure writer named M. Avallone: it is to others we should look for matters of geographical exactitude.

* One of the pair wore a monocle, which made them highly caricaturable.