THE CROCODILE IN THE CANAL - Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 - Simon Winchester

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



Dust lies hot on streets

Clearly empty of love and pity;

It's not like my green village

Here .

- Ebiet G. Ade, from his song ‘

Jakarta 1’, the album

Camellia 1, 1979

The name Batavia had a kind of easy, silky poetry to it. The Dutch, who were exceptionally proud of having created their great administrative super-city for the Orient from scratch - a somewhat less than altogether accurate claim, as the equally proud Javanese are still eager to point out - liked to think of it as their ‘Queen of the East’. The choice of the name was a nicely sentimental notion. Batavia was the old name for Holland, later the Netherlands more generally, the Batavi having been a tribe, first recognized by the Romans, who inhabited a muddily fertile peninsula between the Rhine and the Waal, some few miles south of what is now the city of Utrecht.

There had in fact been a village beside the muddy seepings of the Ciliwung River long before the men of the VOC had planted their corporate flag with its distinctive logo (one of the world's first ever, used on colonial coins and public buildings too) beside their silk and spice warehouses. What would be known as Batavia until the Dutch were compelled to leave it in 1949 had hitherto been known by its more appropriately Javanese name, Jayakarta, which meant ‘victorious and prosperous’. In 1949, as capital of the newly independent Indonesia, the city reverted to what its new leaders thought of as its happily suitable old name, though they modernized it a little to today's Jakarta.There are many, and not simply elderly Dutchmen of nostalgic temperament, who still think Batavia a sweeter sound.


One of the world's first corporate logos, that of Holland's Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie.

And generally speaking old Batavia was, outwardly at least, and for much of its history, a very much sweeter place than now. Today more than seventeen million people cluster around the Ciliwung's long-cemented and mostly vanished river banks, clambering and jostling and polluting in the kind of cheerful huggermugger mayhem that marks many a modern Asian city. Jakarta is not at all a pretty place, and for a visitor stuck stickily in an interminable traffic jam, between gaudy hotels, gimcrack office blocks and tarpaper shanties, it is difficult to imagine it ever enjoying a queenly status or ever having been a favoured place for posting or employment.

But though Batavia has had more than her share of urban wretchedness, there was a golden era, most especially so around the time that Krakatoa exploded, when it was very much a queen among cities, and a place for which many felt great fondness.

Less so, however, during those formative, early Company years, when the VOC was feeling its way into the East. The first settlers were by and large rather frightened men, understandably bewildered by the environment they found themselves in, and not at all sure whether they were in Batavia to lay the foundations of a great city, or simply to build a hasty confection of a town that could serve as Company headquarters, while somewhere more agreeable was waiting to be discovered.

They did their best, however, to turn the sultry and fetid estuary that Jan Pieterszoon Coen had chosen as his base into somewhere that might remind them, at least a little, of their home. They built their fortress, a prison, an armoury, a treasury, a Protestant church and a modest palace for their governor-general* on a sandspit out in the roads. With quiet and deliberate speed, all of this complex became landlocked, as more and more of the lagoon was dredged, more and more real estate was reclaimed, and more and more houses were thrown up around it.

A network of narrow streets (Amsterdam-straat, Utrecht-straat) and sixteen canals (the evocatively named DeLeeuwinen-gracht, Bacharachtsgracht and Stadsbinnengracht among them) was then built in the jungle. The canals in particular, lined with flowering tamarind trees, were also intended to remind the settlers of home; but in fact, since local crocodiles got into the disagreeable habit of sauntering carelessly along them and poking their noses into the residents' doorways, the gesture had for a while rather the opposite effect.

Across the Ciliwung River, which was straightened and given high earthen embankments, an engineer constructed a classic Dutch drawbridge: the kind of double-sided bridge with struts and wires and T-shaped wooden beams that is still found spanning the canals in Amsterdam today, but of which the most famous is actually at Arles in southern France, because a homesick Vincent van Gogh had painted the specimen there. The very first Batavia bridge still exists: it is called Hoenderpasarbrug - the ‘Chicken Market Bridge' - and is one of the more powerful reminders, of only a very few that have survived, that the Dutch did ever hold sway over this bustling modern city. In some evening lights, if one can forget the sight and sound of the choking traffic, there is a touch of Rembrandt to the scene, a hint of van Gogh among the diesel fumes.

Because the early Dutch were petrified of attacks from the Javanese - from the often hostile sultan of Banten near by and his opposite number at Mataram in the island's centre - they also built themselves a wall. They did so at least in part because there was a particular fear abroad, especially among some of those Dutchmen who knew a little of the ways of India, Malaya and Arabia, that they were at risk of being murdered in their beds by fanatical Muslims. But, as it turned out, the Dutch in Java had precious little cause to be so apprehensive.

The Javanese sultans were indeed Muslims, as were their followers; and if Islamic orthodoxy was being strictly obeyed, then they were men who were perhaps in theory likely to be ill-disposed towards the pale-skinned infidel invaders. But here the theory simply did not apply. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, at the very time the Dutch were arriving and setting up colonial camp, the old orthodoxies of Islam were hardly being obeyed at all. The faraway mullahs of Araby were not being heeded. Nor were their teachings: a home-grown, locally brewed version of the creed was proving immensely more popular.

The Islam that had swept so furiously through Sumatra and Java in the fifteenth century had evolved, rather swiftly, into a gentler amalgam of beliefs and passions, and become very different from the rigorous pursuits of the desert-dried Arabs. Here in Java, in particular, on an island in the lush and fecund tropics, a place where there was colour and gaiety and a tradition of vibrant animist religions and curious and long-revered local gods, and where sex was fun, and girls went half naked and were unlikely ever to wish to veil themselves, Islam took on a very different form. One of the great scholars of the period, Snouck Hurgronje, observed in an essay written in 1906 that the Javanese ‘render in a purely formal manner due homage to the institutions ordained of Allah, which are everywhere as sincerely received in theory as they are ill-observed in practice’. Java, in short, was a place where Islam was amiably syncretic, more or less well disposed to everyone - whether a Christian from Europe, a Hindu from the Malabar Coast, or a Buddhist Chinese from Amoy - who happened by.

Very much later - indeed, at about the exact time of the Krakatoa eruption in the late nineteenth century - this was all to change. Orthodox Islam, its revival in part triggered by tragic events such as the great cataclysm, was totally transformed in Java during the nineteenth century, with fundamentalism, militancy and profound hostility to non-Muslims its watchwords. But that was later. At the time of the building of early Batavia, the Dutch had little reason to be fearful of the Javanese as Muslims. They had other reasons to be uncertain, true; but it was not the thought of a fatwah or a jihad that made most of them jumpy. They built their fortress Batavia for more mundane reasons, bowing to the kind of unspoken fears such as anyone camped in an unfamiliar jungle might experience, and that might prompt him to mount a picket, light a bonfire or be ready with a gun. Or to construct a wall.

At first the Dutch created a series of high wooden palisades around their little town; but after thirty years of growing insecurity the governor-general agreed to raise funds to enclose an area of about a mile square within a formidable laager of stone. In some places this was simply provided by the massive outer walls of the dockside spice warehouses; elsewhere sappers built a twelve-foot-high masonry structure, with embrasures, barbicans, donjons, battlements, a moat and a sentry-walk. Beyond it stretched the jungles, hot, dense, soggy and ever hostile, alive with animals: the tiger and the panther, the tapir and the one-horned rhino, black apes and giant rats, a range of giant pythons and venomous cobras together with a gaudy wealth of cockatoos, parrots and birds of paradise.

Inside the walls grew up the curiously compounded population of this quintessentially Company town. Dutchmen were at first reluctant to come - the ‘scum of the earth’, complained Coen, were the ones who wanted to settle - and in the early years only a vanishingly small number of Dutch women appeared on the scene. In fact there were so few females that Coen was forced to appeal to Holland: ‘Everyone knows that the male sex cannot exist without women… if your Excellencies cannot get any honest married people, do not neglect to send underage young girls: thus do we hope to do better than with older women.’

At first only Company servants from the other Asian outposts of the VOC would deign to work in Batavia: Company employees, their slaves (for slavery, usually of men from faraway islands or from elsewhere in Asia, was permitted, and was extraordinarily widespread in the early years of Dutch rule in the East), a motley garrison of soldiers (with troops from as far away as Japan and the Philippines brought to do guard-duty under their bewildered Dutch officers), and, on occasion outnumbering everyone else, a very large number of Chinese.

There had been Chinese in Java long before the Dutch, long before the Portuguese. Along with squadrons of coolies hired to perform the hard work, scores of Chinese merchants had sailed down from the southern ports of Fujian province and set up a prosperous agriculture on the Javan shore. They cultivated sugar and made gallons of the coco-palm toddies and rice-and jaggery arracks that so beguiled (and rendered happily insensible) generations of visiting Western sailors.

Coen immediately spotted their usefulness. He insisted they


A milliner weaves topis and bonnets from alang-alang grass, the better to keep off the sun and the flies.

stay and become part of his new community - offering them (unlike his fellow Dutchmen) the right to trade privately, and to take pepper and birds' nests and sea-cucumbers, all of which were readily available in Java, back to their homes across the South China Sea without interference from the monopoly of the Company. ‘They are an uncommonly clever, courteous, industrious and obliging people,’ wrote one of Coen's colleagues. ‘There is nothing you can imagine that they do not undertake and practise… Many keep eating-houses or tea-houses… or earn money fishing or carrying or conveying people.’ It has been 400 years since this was written. So far as the impression offered by the diaspora of overseas Chinese is concerned, very little seems to have changed.

Slowly the community was born and struggled to its feet, matured and began to grow. At first no Javanese were allowed to live within the city walls - and no Javanese were employed as slaves, lest they band together and conspire against the Dutch. But by the middle of the seventeenth century the ban had been relaxed somewhat, and a census in 1673 records the presence within the walls of 27,000 inhabitants, of whom 1,300 were classed as ‘Moors and Javanese’. Two thousand were Dutch, nearly 3,000 Chinese and 5,000 were members of a curious group called Mardijkers, who were Portuguese-speaking Asians, most of them freed slaves from Malacca and India who had been converted to Protestant Christianity.* The result was that Batavia had a cosmopolitan air of the most exotic stripe: there were turbaned Macasserese and long-haired Ambonese, Chinese with festoons of black queues, Balinese Hindus, ‘black Portuguese’ vegetable hawkers, Moors from Kerala, Tamils, Burmese, a few soldiers from Japan. And overseeing them all, with the haughty disdain that is born of vague fear, were the stout and pale-skinned burghers from Holland and Zeeland and Friesland and elsewhere in the flat and cold European north.

And then there were the others, now nearly 16,000 of this counted population of 1673, the slaves. Their use (which remained legal until abolition in 1860†) made life exquisitely comfortable for some. Since no one would risk having slaves from Java, they had to be brought in by ship from elsewhere - an efficient process, one slave-pedlar complained, after noting that of a consignment of 250 slaves sent down to him from the Arakan hills of Burma, only 114 had been delivered. And some slaves did flee over the city wall, gathered into gangs that lived in the jungle and raided parties of wandering Dutch; one, a Balinese named Surapati, had a band of rogues so large and powerful he formed his own fiefdom in east Java, which was ruled as an independent state for more than a century.

The wealthier Europeans in seventeenth-century Batavia might own a hundred or more slaves, and the town's main slave-market was from the beginning a bustling, crowded place. These Malays, Indians, Burmese and Balinese workers were trained to occupy the tiniest of niches in the household labour structure - advertisements spoke of a need for lamplighters, coachmen, pageboys, tea-makers, bakers, seamstresses and, most specialized of all, makers of a spicy side-dish known as sambal.

The ladies' maid-slaves would be put to work as masseuses or hairdressers; these girls were skilled in fashioning hair into the bun-shaped style known as the conde, much favoured in the salons of the time. Since they were so plentiful and so cheap, slaves frequently had little to do and sat around gambling their days away. But if they ever tried to escape, or, worse, if they ran amok - the word is Malay for a state of frenzy and was used as a legal term in the VOC courts - punishment was severe: they could be whipped or imprisoned. A Dutchman who shot one of his slaves dead and injured three others was merely told to leave Batavia, and not to do any further business with the VOC for the rest of his days.

Though the townsfolk in those closing years of the seventeenth century did not yet know it, their neighbour island of Krakatoa was itself also, and for the first time within their sight, about to run amok.

No one had yet noticed that the island in the Sunda Strait had any potential for trouble. None of the navigators who had passed northwards into the Java Sea and gazed, as seamen do, at the island with the ‘pointed mountain’ on their port beam had supposed that one day it might do something quite terrifyingly and world-shatteringly dramatic. They, like the citizens of their destination-city, were blissful in their ignorance of the tectonic complications then beginning to unravel many miles beneath their feet. They carried on instead with the serious business of colonial life, with a magnificent insouciance that was to be their motif for the next two centuries - right up to the moment of the cataclysm that engulfed their lives when the tiny parrot-filled and palm-covered island finally went mad.

But on the eve of this first recorded volcanic throat-clearing, life for the European men and women who lived eighty-three miles east in Batavia had assumed an atmosphere of near-settled urbanity. Perhaps the frantic gaiety that would characterize life in the nineteenth century was not yet apparent: seventeenth-century eve-of-eruption life tended to the more formal, strict, luxurious and, at times, terrifyingly cruel.

The buildings that were being constructed in mid century were by now quite substantial affairs. The warehouses were massive with teak and mahogany. The grand mansions along the Jacatra Weg that were built for the pepper planters and ship-dealers, with their ornate wrought-iron gates, their gilded carvings and delft tiles, moved an otherwise forgotten Mr Speenhoff to song:

At long last I enjoyed myself

Outside Batavia

Along the green heather

On the Jaketra road.

And the great Town Hall was first built during this rather sedate and pompous period:* a cupola, shutters, columns and the porte cochère all part of the standard architecture of the East.

This building served a myriad of functions: the magistrates' bench was here, licences were issued, slaves were freed, ships were sold. On the cobbled square outside was a set of stocks, with miscreants frequently seen locked into them. Inside and below ground there were dungeons, and many are the stories of how the VOC security officers, who ran their Company town with a ferocious rectitude, resorted to torture to extract confessions. A visiting German soldier named Christopher Schweitzer wrote an account of the harshness he saw:

The 29th. Four Seamen were publicly Beheaded at Batavia (which is here the common Death of Criminals) for having killed a Chinese. At the same time, six Slaves that had Murthered their master in the night were broke upon the Wheel. A Mulatto (as they call those that are betwixt a Black-a-Moor and a White) was Hang'd for Theft. Eight other Seamen were Whipt for Stealing, and running away, and were besides this Burnt on the Shoulder with the Arms of the East India Company. Two Dutch Soldiers that had absented themselves from the Guard two days, ran the Gauntlet. A Dutch Schoolmaster's Wife that was caught in Bed with another Man (it being her frequent Practice) was put in the Pillory, and Condemn'd to 12 years Imprisonment in the Spinhuys, the women's prison.

Christopher Schweitzer's account is dated 1676. It is suggestive of a certain public unhappiness, of a draconian degree of Dutch response, of a current of distemper in the land.

And then, four years later, with the situation between rulers and ruled still uneasy, Krakatoa very noisily awakened its slumbering self. It was an event that astonished and perhaps even briefly terrified the new European arrivals. Yet most Javanese, long immersed in a balm of myth and legend relating to their volcanoes, would later say that with all the evident unhappiness abroad, they could have seen it coming.

Orang Alijeh, the Javan god and mountain ghost whose task is to superintend the emissions of smoke and fire into the eastern heavens, is said to breathe sulphur from his nostrils when all is less than well on his earthly dominions. Krakatoa, which, along with Tambora and Merapi and Merbapu and Bromo, was one of his most potent mountains, had been blessedly quiet, or comparatively so,* for at least the previous 1,200 years. The only event that some might say had taken place to tax his patience was that foreigners, white men from far away, had now come by sea to rule over the people of Java. This, not a few Javan mystics liked to say, was one of the reasons why volcanoes occasionally made their fire, the more forcefully to display the degree of Orang Alijeh's grave displeasure.

Yet, however displeased Alijeh might have been, what followed was by all accounts not the greatest of pyrotechnic performances. And no one who witnessed what happened ever came forward to write a first-person account. All we know comes essentially from one man, a Dutch silver assayer from the western Sumatran mining town of Salida, named Johan Vilhelm Vogel.

Vogel, who was said to be so ‘pious and studious a servant of the Compagnie’ that he eventually became mayor of Salida, first passed Krakatoa in the usual way en route from Holland to Batavia - thus with the island to his port side - aboard the long-range packet Hollandsche Thuyn in June 1679. He waited ten weeks in town, then left Batavia for Sumatra in September aboard the yacht Wapen van ter Gos, this time Krakatoa passing by to starboard. He saw nothing that struck him as remarkable.

But then in due course he fell ill. The Company, sedulous in caring for their more valuable employees, ordered him to visit their doctors in Batavia, and he left the Sumatran port of Padang in January 1681 aboard the yacht de Zijp. This time the Krakatoa he saw presented a very different aspect.

I saw with amazement that the island Cracketovv, on my first trip to Sumatra completely green and healthy with trees, lay completely burned and barren in front of our eyes and that at four locations was throwing up large chunks of fire.

... the ship's Captain told me this had happened in May 1680. That time also he had made the trip from Bengal, had run into a heavy storm, and about ten miles away from the island had experienced an earthquake. This was followed by a tremendous thundering crash which had made him think that an island or otherwise a piece of land had split apart… He and the whole ship's population had smelled a strong and very fresh sulphur odour. Also the sailors had retrieved with water pails from the sea some very lightweight rocks, very much resembling pumice stone, which had been thrown from the island. They were scooped up as a rarity. He showed me a piece of the island. He showed me a piece of it a little larger than a fist.

By checking the port records of vessels sailing in and out of Batavia, we can see that the captain of the de Zijp had indeed travelled between Batavia and the port of Bengalen* in May 1680 aboard the cutter Aardenburgh. The story, in this respect, does thus seem to tally. If it is true, then this long-forgotten and so far anonymous sea-captain and his crew were the first Europeans ever either to see the volcano of Krakatoa erupt or to see the results of its recent eruption. The Aardenburgh's log, however, has never been found; and the day-register of Batavia Castle, an official journal that records all ship movements in and out of the harbour and any pertinent comments from the vessels' various masters, is silent.

A writer named Elias Hesse then wrote a vivid account of an eruption, suggesting that it was continuing in November 1681 when he and Mayor Vogel left together aboard a Sumatra-bound ship called the Nieuw-Middelburgh. He first mentions passing an island he calls Zibbesie (today's Sebesi, a couple of miles north of Krakatoa) and being unable to sleep because of the crying of ghosts (which the apparently rather more sober Vogel later reported were orang-utans, ‘which produce a terrible howling, often when the weather is about to change’). He continues:

then still north of the island Cracatou, which erupted about a year ago and is also uninhabited. The rising smoke column of this island can be seen from miles away; we were with our ship very close to shore and could see the trees sticking out high on the mountain, and which looked completely burned, but we could not see the fire itself.

Later the Nieuw-Middelburgh and its crew of company servants and miners were forced to heave to in the Sunda Strait, where they experienced heavy sea-quakes and learned of an earthquake that, Hesse reported, ‘did considerable damage to the buildings of the Company’.

A close study of the records of other ships passing through the Strait at the time - and for a variety of reasons there were very many - shows no other suggestion of an eruption or earthquake in 1681. And further - the day-register has no information even in May 1680 of anything of interest having taken place in the Sunda Strait. The register reports the most mundane occurrences of city life: a tiger found outside the walls, crocodiles captured in the city streets, a comet seen in the sky, servants running amok. Yet nowhere in 1680 or 1681 is there any mention at all of an eruption on an island that was passed by scores of Company ships every week.

From this dearth of information it is perhaps fair to conclude only three things: first, that Elias Hesse was an inventive fantasist and probably made up his entire account of volcanic activity in November 1681. Second, that the silver assayer and sobersided mayor Johan Vogel was similarly afflicted, and that his suggestion of seeing ‘large chunks of fire’ at ‘four locations’ on Krakatoa in February 1681 is also fictional. He did, however, probably see evidence - burned trees, barren plains of ash - that some disaster had befallen Krakatoa a while before. And third, the captain of the de Zijp and the Aardenburgh almost certainly did see something of an eruption in May 1680. But since no other passing vessel did, and since no mention was made of anything grave having occurred to the ever vigilant bureaucrats in the Castle, whatever had happened was small beer indeed, and the captain had, like many men of the sea, made the story into a considerably better one the moment he stepped ashore.