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



There was a sign from the sun, the like of which had never been seen or reported before. The sun became dark and its darkness lasted for eighteen months. Each day, it shone for about four hours, and still this light was only a feeble shadow. Everyone declared that the sun would never recover its full light again. The fruits did not ripen, and the wine tasted like sour grapes.

– an eleventh-century plagiarism by an Antioch patriarch called Michael the Syrian, of a document supposedly written by the sixth-century historian John of Ephesus, describing the punishing climatic effects of an event that some believe to have been an early eruption of Krakatoa

Man has been recording his memories for about 30,000 years, in cave-paintings or songs, in carvings or writings, and during this time the small cluster of volcanoes and off-islands that for the last 300 years we have come to call collectively Krakatoa has exploded once, twice, four or even eleven times, depending on just how the runes of geology, myth and circumstance are read and interpreted.

Four of these eruptions are generally accepted to have emerged from the mists of uncertain history into the realms of possible reality. And yet, of these four, one is widely thought of now as most unlikely to have occurred at all; the date of a second is very reluctantly agreed to; a third is known to have been very poorly reported and subject to wanton hyperbole; and only the most recent truly survives as the one of the four that is incontrovertibly regarded as having taken place.

There is some evidence that a very long while before that – perhaps 60,000 years ago or more – there once was a very much larger mountain that some geologists like to call Ancient Krakatoa, which they believe was something like 6,000 feet high and centred on an almost perfectly circular island about nine miles in diameter. But then a gigantic eruption, witnessed only by gibbering hominids and Neanderthals, if indeed by anyone, may have devastated the island and its peak, blowing almost all to smithereens.

Once the dust had settled, what remained of Ancient Krakatoa was a group of four quite small and apparently stable-looking islands. At the northern end of the group were two low and crescent-shaped skerries – one to the east called Panjang, about three miles long, and to the west its larger colleague, four miles long, called Sertung.* Embraced within the parenthesis created by these twins was both the Polish Hat, a tiny chunk of the finegrained volcanic rock known as andesite, and the northern end of the island that we truly once regarded as Krakatoa proper. This was then a lozenge-shaped mass, six miles long by two wide, and half a mile high at its higher southern end. The southern summit was called Rakata; to its north were a pair of smaller crater-peaks. The first of these peaks, roughly in the island's centre, was called Danan; and nudging up into the sky from the island's narrower northern spur was the second, known as Perboewatan.

This main island was found by early visitors to be always well forested, with an abundance of fresh-looking lava flows and steaming hot springs and outcrops of sulphur that were once worked by Batavian dynamite-makers. Over the centuries it had been used variously as a VOC naval reconnaissance station, as a place to build small ships, as a base for a small northern Sunda Strait fishing fleet, and, in 1809 and for the decade following, as a remote and barely accessible Alcatraz for those recalcitrant native prisoners whom the Dutch could not control on the mainland.

A few have suggested that it was an island of evil reputation, a lair for pirates, a place that visitors from Java and Sumatra, who sailed over in their prahus to collect wood or wild fruit, found so disenchanting that they failed to leave offerings for Krakatoa's local gods. In fact, there is little evidence of this, however seductive the symbolism and the symmetry – the island of vile repute that exploded and killed thousands. From most credible accounts, Krakatoa's real reputation was actually rather the reverse.

For by the reports of most Western visitors, there were from time to time a number of contented, if somewhat impoverished, little settlements on the island. The great English circumnavigating explorer Captain James Cook, for example, stopped on the


The presumed geological evolution of the Krakatoa islands, viewed from the north. The original great island – Ancient Krakatoa – is thought to have exploded some 60,000 years ago.

main island of Krakatoa twice. In January 1771 his colleague Joseph Banks, the renowned botanist and polymath, noted: ‘At night Anchor'd under a high Island call[ed] in the draughts Cracatoa and by the Indian Pulo Racatta… this morn when we rose we saw that there were many houses and much Cultivation upon Cracatoa, so that probably a ship might meet with refreshments who chose to touch here.’ Six years later, when Cook called in again, a village and fields of cultivation were still to be found – pepper was being grown and harvested, as well as other cash crops.

Three years later still, the Resolution and the Discovery stopped at Krakatoa one further time – but on this occasion, in February 1780, they were without James Cook himself, since he had been bludgeoned to death in Hawaii the previous November. They stopped in the crescent-shaped roads between Krakatoa and Panjang Islands for five days, giving the fleet artist, John Webber, time to make elaborate drawings of the village houses and the luxuriant vegetation – palms, tall grasses, ferns – in the valley on Krakatoa between the two more southerly peaks of Danan and Rakata. The expedition's day-book recorded the details of the party's sojourn on the island:

The Resolution refilled its barrels at a stream located at the southern extremity of the little island, a short distance from the shoreline. A little to the south, one finds a heat-source, where the islanders bathe. While we were on a level with the southern extremity of this island the Master went to find an aiguade, but he disembarked with difficulty, and returned without finding any sweet water.

The island of Cracatoa is considered very healthy in comparison to those thereabouts. She offers elevated ground which rises little-by-little from the shoreline on all sides; she is covered with trees, except in several places where the islanders have cleared them for growing rice. The population is not very considerable. The chief is subject to the King of Bantam, just as those of the other islands in the Strait. One finds on the coral reef a large quantity of little turtles, refreshments which elsewhere are very rare, and have an enormous price.

The pepper groves had all but disappeared ten years later, when the Dutch administrator visited; such people as lived on Krakatoa were then raising chickens and goats, and made small sums selling firewood, water and food to stopping ships. There may have been people living on the island at the time of each of


The lush coastal jungle of Krakatoa island, drawn by John Webber, expedition artist for Captain James Cook, during the fleet's visit in 1780.

the early eruptions; at the time of the cataclysm Krakatoa was, quite widely, vacant. But there is no suggestion that it had an evil name.


The three early occasions that, according to most modern history books, possibly saw eruptions were (according to the Western calendar, only lately adopted in Java) the anno Domini years 416, 535 and 1680. There is the vaguest of suggestions that between the ninth and the sixteenth centuries there were also no fewer than seven additional eruptive episodes, and that during the single century when the Buddhist kings of the Cailendra Dynasty were on the throne in central Java* Krakatoa became so notoriously active that it was called ‘the fire-mountain’. This figure of seven, when added to the three possible eruptions and the single certain catastrophe, gives the tally of eleven – a number that is rather doubtful, it must be said.

The one subsequent occasion when Krakatoa went wild is the only year that is fixed with total certainty, and that is 1883. Of the three earlier occasions (I am going to dismiss the Cailendra Seven – for want of any evidence at all, other than the somewhat less than illuminating ‘fire-mountain' remark in a Buddhist manuscript) we are rather less sure just when or what took place, if indeed anything did at all.

For completeness' sake, though, it is probably worth first exploring something of the shadowy world of old Java, to see if it is possible to establish with any certainty the early volcanic history of the island – if for no other reason than that the establishment of Krakatoa's eruptive past may offer us some useful clue as to her probable future.

The Possible Eruption of AD 416

The most frequently quoted source for the first (and, perhaps, also the second) of these three rather questionable event-dates is a monumental modern history written in the nineteenth century, known as the Javanese Book of Kings.Its author, a Javanese court poet called Raden Ngabahi Ranggawarsita, was well connected to the Dutch colonial establishment of the day, as well as being a key figure in the most distinguished of traditional circles. He worked in the sultanly estate of Solo, which is unarguably the most refined of all Javanese courts, a place where the gamelan playing, the wayang kulit puppetry and the poetry still have few equals for their elegance, style and cultural purity.

But for Ranggawarsita, who was intellectually as much scholar as poet, and who knew the European historical record well, the courtly life was evidently not enough. He had as his principal ambition something more than the fashioning of lyrical poems to mark significant moments in the life of the sultan of Solo. He wanted instead to create something of rather greater and enduring value: a truly comprehensive history of the entire island of Java, a document that could hold up its head alongside the great European tracts about their own countries and peoples. He spent most of his adult years working on the project – and in the 1860s, after decades of what must have been the most thankless toil, he finally achieved his goal, completing and uttering for publication a series of fascinating but undisciplined ramblings that make up what is possibly the world's longest book.* Unfortunately, according to his many critics, most of what he wrote he made up.

That being so, there has been an understandably cautious reaction among scholars who have tried to use Ranggawarsita's tome as the basis for serious historical research. Scientists who have read it have been among the most sceptical of all – and most particularly vulcanologists, who have been both drawn to, and confused by, one highly alluring passage:

the whole world was greatly shaken, and violent thundering, accompanied by heavy rain and storms took place, but not only did not this heavy rain extinguish the eruption of the fire of the mountain Kapi, but augmented the fire; the noise was fearful, at last the mountain Kapi with a tremendous roar burst into pieces and sank into the deepest of the earth. The water of the sea rose and inundated the land, the country to the east of the mountain Batuwara, to the mountain Raja Basa, was inundated by the sea; the inhabitants of the northern part of the Sunda country to the mountain Raja Basa were drowned and swept away with all their property…

What does it mean? To which mountain – since Kapi is not a name known today – does the passage refer?* And when did whatever happened take place? Geologists, more familiar with gazing at fossils or down microscopes, have pored over this one paragraph of elegant Javanese prose and gone over it with a fine-tooth comb.

It all would have been a good deal more helpful and a sight less confusing if Ranggawarsita had only written once about the supposed great eruption. In fact he went back to it twice. The paragraph quoted above comes from the 1869 version of his book. By the time of his second edition of 1885 he had decided to take another look at it (whatever, wherever and whenever it was), and he wrote about it as follows:

... in the year Saka 338 [i.e. AD 416] a thundering noise was heard from the mountain Batuwara, which was answered by a similar noise

coming from the mountain Kapi, lying westward of the modern Bantam. A great glaring fire which reached to the sky came out of the last-named mountain. The whole world was greatly shaken and violent thundering accompanied by heavy rains and storms took place.

But not only did this heavy rain not extinguish the eruption of fire of the mountain Kapi, but it augmented the fire. The noise was fearful. At last the mountain Kapi burst into two pieces with a tremendous roar and sank into the deepest of the earth. The water of the sea rose and inundated the land.

The country to the east of the mountain called Batuwara, to the mountain Kamula, and westward to the mountain Raja Basa, was inundated by the sea.

The inhabitants of the northern part of the Sunda country to the mountain Raja Basa were drowned and swept away with all their property.

After the water subsided the mountain Kapi which had burst into pieces and the surrounding land became sea and the single island [of Java–Sumatra] divided into two parts. The city of Samaskuta, which was situated in the interior of Sumatra, became sea, the water of which was very clear, and which was afterwards called the lake Sinkara. This event was the origin of the separation of Sumatra and Java.

The second of the two passages is more amply filled with geographical detail: the references to Sumatra and Java splitting apart, the identification of ‘the Sunda country' and of volcanoes like Kamula – which is now known from other sources to be the western Javan volcano called Gede, south of today's Jakarta – Batuwara, in western Banten, and Rajabasa, which is a 4,000-foot peak at the southern tip of Sumatra, that still bears that name. Given all these circumstantial pieces of cartography, it looks more than likely that ‘the mountain Kapi’ is in fact Krakatoa.

But there is a small difficulty. The second description, filled as it is with journalistic colour – glaring fires, fearful noises, marine inundations, sea-destroyed villages – was written some two years after the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. And since it is a much richer account than that written in 1869, to the sceptical eye it looks as though Ranggawarsita – having read all the newspapers and perhaps interviewed some residents of Banten (where most of the 1883 flood destruction took place) and spoken to friendly Dutch officials and perhaps to a few scientists too – took his first account of 1869 and fifteen years later, to put it bluntly, embellished it. He seems to have scattered some 1883 details, like glitter, on top of his rather bland descriptions of that earlier event.

And, by doing so, if that is what indeed he did, the poet suffers the inevitable fate of any writer of non-fiction who makes anything up: he finds that readers call into question everything he writes. His entire history is then suspected of being flawed – and readers look even at his first description of the explosion of ‘Kapi’ and the inundations and deaths that followed, and wonder not just when it happened, but if it happened at all.

Except, of course (and here I spring to Ranggawarsita's defence), at the time he wrote his first edition in 1869 he did not have any means of embellishing what he wrote. Yes, he might have seen accounts in the history books of the supposed eruption that took place in May 1680. But could he have made all of it up? Probably not. Most probably his writings for the first edition of the Book of Kings do come from his research into original sources. The trouble is – which sources? We know little of his historiography: we can only surmise that his description of an eruption in the Sunda Strait probably came from those ancient, peculiarly beautiful and very fragile Javanese manuscripts written on palm-leaves, and of which the kraton library at Solo had a very great number.

Matters here start to become somewhat vague. Of the 10,000 or so surviving palm-leaf texts – which are written in a variety of manuscript styles, including Balinese, Court Javanese and a curiously complex calligraphy called Mountain Script, with which Ranggawarsita (and a mere handful of others) was familiar – only a very small number actually relate the ancient history of Java. Most of them appear to stop (or start) in about the ninth century. Before that, very little of which we can be certain appears to be known about Java at all.

To give some of the flavour of this uncertainty: there are references in Ranggawarsita's work to a mysterious monarch called Jayabaya, who supposedly oversaw the writing of the accounts of the eruption that are to be found in some of the older palm-leaf texts. Jayabaya in turn is supposed to have been told about the eruption by a Hindu god named Naraddha, who descended from heaven and related fabulous stories that, he insisted to the king, should be inserted into all and any accounts of the history of Java.

So here we have it: an account that arrives from an ancient god, via an enigmatic tenth-century king who dictated material to scribes who wrote on leaves, and is then related through the good offices of a nineteenth-century court poet who, yes, could read those leaves but who was clearly also a man much taken to flights of fancy. Small wonder that the scientific community has received this basic story of Krakatoa's first recorded eruption with a healthy degree of scepticism.

Except for two things. First, the details are very good (even the relatively unadorned first account of 1869) and fairly convincing geologically. And second, there is a firm date given for the event: AD 416. Of that Ranggawarsita has no doubt: the Hindu god seemingly told Jayabaya that the event took place in the 338th year of the Shaka Calendar. This is a widely recognized Hindu dating system used only on these islands, which began in Western terms in the year AD 78, when Hinduism was supposedly brought south from the Champa Kingdom in what is today's Vietnam. To get the modern date of 416, one simply does the maths.

But there is not one other shred of independent contemporary evidence – not a line of dust in any of the ice-cores taken from either polar ice-cap, not a millimetre of shrinkage in the size of any tree ring* taken from any of the world's ancient forests – to suggest that there was a volcanic eruption anywhere in the world in the early part of the fifth century. The error rates from these techniques are in the range of plus or minus twenty-five years. So it seems clear from scientific evidence that no volcano of consequence erupted in the world during the first quarter of the fifth century; that much appears certain, the Shaka year, those glaring fires, the inundations of the sea and the explosion of the mountain Kapi notwithstanding. Without firm scientific evidence, and with the historical evidence little more than a vividly told tale from a Victorian poet–fantasist, one has to wonder seriously whether there was a fifth-century eruption at all.

The Confusions of AD 416 or AD 535

There is, however, quite abundant evidence that some kind of titanic event occurred about a century later. It can be seen from a very considerable body of tree-ring, ice-core and worldwide anecdotal evidence that a massive volcanic eruption most likely occurred somewhere in the region of Java or Sumatra around AD 535. Could this perhaps also be Krakatoa? Could perhaps the Shaka date in Ranggawarsita's history be an error – but all the other supposed observations, at least for his first account, be substantially correct?

A slender and somewhat tenuous body of evidence suggests error to be the explanation. This evidence derives from the observation that volcanic eruptions, especially truly large ones that occur close to large places of habitation, trigger widespread social dislocation. People die in their hundreds, communications are severed, there is disease, ruin, a collapse of social order. And a barely recognized consequence of all this mayhem is that historical record-keeping suffers. It becomes patchy and incomplete. Historians, like everyone else, have little other than personal survival on their minds.

And the Javanese Book of Kings exhibits this patchiness, at just the right time. For all of the fifth century, the book contains its fairly routine and regular selection of entries – there appears to have been no interruption, no trauma, that ever caused a historian to stop writing about Javanese trivia for a protracted period during the hundred years between AD 400 and AD 500. That century on Java seems to have been blessed with an absence of awfulness. The year AD 416 appears with the account of the explosion itself, but, very pointedly, seems not to have been followed by years of disruption, with historians taking time off from their duties to attend to their own needs. There is just as much inconsequential detail in the Javanese palm-leaf history books for the ten-year period between 420 and 430 as there is for the period between 400 and 410.

But in the next century, the sixth, this is not the case at all. For the first thirty years of the sixth century, fully three quarters of the years have journal entries – the normal strike-rate, as it were. But for the eighteen years that follow the crucial year of AD 535, however, fewer than one fifth display journal entries. And then for the thirty years following that, the rate of mention of ordinary matters rises back to a little under three quarters the normal rate. So it looks very much as though something occurred in or around AD 535, something that sent the palm-leaf scribes of Java into a tailspin, into a state of historical catalepsy, for almost the following two decades.

And what is more – there is confirming ice-core and tree-ring evidence aplenty from the world outside as well. Dating of both cores and trees is these days highly accurate, and it does now seem that between the years AD 510 and 560 some major event that sifted dust around the world and caused the sun to dim and arboreal growing conditions to slacken surely did happen (even if the error rate of twenty-five years is taken into consideration). There is also a Chinese record attesting to a huge detonation heard at around that time – an account that intriguingly adds, moreover, that the noise came from the south – to the south of China, in other words. And Krakatoa is of course due south of China.

It would be stretching matters to say that any of this evidence is wholly convincing: but it seems fair to say that of those two supposed early eruptions, only the later – that occurring in 535 – seems likely to have involved Krakatoa. The other record, if it is not simply a mistaken date, may have related to an eruption of any one of Java's other twenty active volcanoes – or it may simply be a mélange of myth, confusion, legend and embellishment, and may never have happened at all.

The Likely Eruption of AD 535

Assuming, then, that the first Krakatoa eruption did occur in 535, and not a century beforehand, it is fair to say from what little we know of the social conditions in the western Java of the time, that there were probably precious few people around to be aware of it. In particular there seems to have been no city worthy of the name within a hundred miles of the eruption. Chinese traders, ships' captains who made voyages along the northern and eastern coasts of Java and Sumatra, appear to have left the most comprehensive written records of the region: a number of these speak of a community of the time known as Si-tiao, which was most probably on Java and which was possessed of ‘fertile lands and communities with streets’.

Another state, which in the annals of the Peking mandarinate was called P'u-tei – probably in southern Sumatra – was populated by a race said to be ‘as black as lacquer’; its members liked to row out from their settlements to sell chickens and fruit to the emperor's passing sailing junks. There are also records of a rather dyspeptic-sounding community called Holotan, who grumbled to the Chinese that they were unceasingly subject to attacks by their neighbours. And cannibals ‘with tails’ – probably early versions of the ceremonial long headdresses still to be found in parts of southern Borneo – also caught the attention of the Chinese court's punctilious scribes.

But neither the Indian nor the Chinese traders who passed by with their gold and jade and sandalwood and cloves noticed a large city or any kind of sophisticated urban population in Java or Sumatra. Fires might have lit the sky, and torrents of ash and pumice rained down from the clouds, but the people of Nusantara (the old Malay word meaning ‘the islands between’) who saw and heard and were duly astonished, horrified or hurt, were villagers only, artless country folk whose descriptions of those early and startling events were inevitably vague and imaginative.

In 1999 a British television documentary, based on a remarkable book, Catastrophe, by a London-based author named David Keys, suggested powerfully that the AD 535 eruption of Krakatoa not only happened but was the primary cause of an extraordinary number of seemingly unrelated yet world-changing events.

The climate changes triggered by the eruption – if that is what it was – helped to bring about an astonishing series of utterly apocalyptic events: among these, the television programme suggested, were occurrences of no less magnitude than the Fall of the Roman Empire, the outbreak of the rat-borne Great Plague, the historyless miseries of the Dark Ages, the birth of Islam, the invasion of Europe by the barbarians, the collapse of Central America's Mayan civilization and the birth of at least four new Mediterranean states – the list goes on and on. And though the arguments promoting such ideas appear at times more than a little speculative, everything eventually distils into a single fact: something enormous did take place somewhere in the world in the first half of the sixth century AD, and it had a staggering effect on the world's climate. But what exactly was that something?

A volcano, by all accounts. Evidence used to suggest that nothing at all took place in AD 416 is the same evidence that indicates something very major indeed occurred 119 years later. Dust in the ice-cores, acid snows in Greenland and Antarctica, compellingly seductive data from thousands of tree-ring samples – all point to an event, somewhere, in the first half of the sixth century. And thanks initially to Ranggawarsita's writings, however unreliable, the finger points alluringly to Krakatoa as the site for whatever that event might have been.

Surprisingly, very few halfway reliable scientific tests have ever been undertaken to indicate the date of Krakatoa's previous eruptions. It somewhat defies belief that science has been generally content to allow historians to determine the story of Krakatoa's past, when rather more accurate methods – radiometric dating principally among them – could give the answers to a degree of accuracy that poets to the court of Solo unsurprisingly could never really match. The television programme-makers saw to it that this sorry state of affairs was remedied.

In 1999, as a response to the wide interest over the remarkable suggestions made in Catastrophe, the resident specialist on Krakatoa at the University of Rhode Island, Haraldur Sigurdsson, went on an expedition to Krakatoa* to use the magic of modern chemistry to try to find a definitive answer to the puzzle that Ranggawarsita had set. He attempted this by taking samples of charcoal from a number of various and evidently very ancient lava flows that he found on Rakata, the surviving relic-mountain of the 1883 eruption. He performed dating tests on the samples using the well-known half-life of the carbon-14 isotope.

The results were, however, only moderately conclusive. The event that had burned the charcoal had occurred, Professor Sigurdsson was able to say, between AD 1 and AD 1200. There had, in other words, been a very large volcanic eruption on Krakatoa during the first 1,200 years of the Christian era – and it may well have been a large enough event to trigger the climate changes that would in turn cause the economic and social dislocations (and the migration of plague-carrying rats) that would cause the profound events that are the central thesis of Catastrophe.

But as to whether that single event can be pinned down to any one year – and whether that year is likely to be AD 416 or AD 535, there is no ready answer still. Perhaps only Ranggawarsita really had any idea.

The Near-certain Eruption of AD 1680

Pure fancy was not so much of a factor 1,100 years later, however, when Krakatoa may have lifted her skirts once again. May have, though, has to be the operative phrase. We have already seen how possibly vague and imaginatively drawn were the descriptions of the supposed events of 416 and 535. There is no evidence at all for any eruptions during the Buddhist Cailendra Dynasty. The descriptions of whatever took place in 1680 do not exactly amount to a paragon of scrupulous exactitude either.

As we have seen, there were just three European witnesses to what might have occurred: the silver assayer named Johan Vilhelm Vogel who first saw evidence of ruin on the island; the writer named Elias Hesse who produced his all too vivid account of an event that, according to him, was still playing itself out more than a year later; and the unnamed captain of a Bengal trading vessel Aardenburgh.

The first two of these witnesses wrote accounts of a volcanic event that seem highly coloured, to say the least. And while the Aardenburgh's master may well have spoken robustly of an eruption to attentive and well-lubricated audiences in Batavia's dockside bars, he seems to have written nothing in his log that was of sufficient interest to alert his masters in the Castle: the official records, comprehensive in all other respects, are silent. Something did definitely occur on Krakatoa, of that there is little doubt; but whatever it was, it was probably much less significant a happening than the eruption that seems to have taken place in the sixth century; not to mention what took place two centuries later, in the nineteenth century.

It did none the less take place within a respectable distance of a newly settled urban population. For Batavia, the primary Company town of the VOC, was in 1680 a full eight decades old, and it had attained some kind of settled maturity. It had a walled quarter and turreted administrative offices, a Chinatown and a collection of godowns, and any number of small terraced houses with streets and canals and taverns, forming a dreamy, steamy simulacrum of the VOC employees' much missed homes back in faraway Amsterdam or Leiden, Delft or Utrecht.

The Dutch who settled in seventeenth-century Batavia were not an especially content people, by all accounts. Their lives were a succession of uncomfortable trials. They were seldom fully well: they tended to succumb to a variety of tropical ills – malaria, cholera, dengue fever – and they were morbidly afraid of the air on which they suspected the responsible germs were borne. The foul smells from the coast,* brought in by the sea-breezes that usually began to blow at breakfast-time, prompted everyone in the city to keep their doors and windows firmly shut until dusk; and then to shut them once more soon after, to keep out the evening mosquitoes. Everyone bathed in the city canals. ‘The ladies unblushingly dived into these general public bathtubs,’ wrote one Bernard Vlekke, ‘a custom which was vainly forbidden… because the canals were used as sewers and were therefore, rather filthy.’

And then there was the drinking and partying and the smoking, and the slightly desperate merriment of colonial life. No less an authority than Jan Pieterszoon Coen himself, the founder of it all, had decreed the beneficial effects of spirits: ‘Our nation must drink or die’, he is quoted as having once remarked – an epithet the Dutch distilling industry still likes to remember today. The average seventeenth-century Hollander in Batavia would take a glass of neat genever before his breakfast, and would then while away the day consuming glass after glass of arrack as he sat sweltering in his dark, airless house. And with small Dutch cigars costing no more than a few guilders for a box of a thousand, with big Havana cigars only a few guilders more, and a nut of dark shag big enough to fill a meerschaum bowl going for just a few pence, the Batavian air was always blue with tobacco smoke.

Down by the Jakarta waterfront at Sunda Kelapa there is still the slenderest of reminders of those times, barely preserved in a city that is eternally busy, endlessly and boisterously changing and (given its bewildering jumble of races and religions) all too often bickering with itself, sometimes very violently. Down where the oily waters of the dock slap against the splintered timber piers, the old Dutch spice godowns remain, huddled among the tenements of the fish market. There is a massively built ship-repair dock, with flagstone floors and teak beams, now turned into a restaurant that serves rijsttafel and ice-cold Bintang beer. There is a portion of the old city wall, with a round-topped lozenge of a sentry-box, badly in need of care and repair. And there is the Culemborg bastion, with a nineteenth-century watchtower and customs office, Chinese characters carved into the floor and, it is said, a marker showing the hour meridian, the centre-point of Java Time (Bali being so far away east it is an hour later, Aceh in Sumatra, to the west, an hour before).

But the loveliest sight in Sunda Kelapa has nothing to do with the Dutch, the VOC or, seemingly, with Krakatoa at all. It is a far more elemental, far more timeless vision: the sight of the serried ranks of enormous and gaily painted wooden sailing ships – maybe fifty of them, on a busy day – that are to be found tied up alongside the long quay. They are a type of schooner known as pinisi, sailed by rough-and-ready Bugis from Sulawesi, or matelots from Kalimantan and the outer islands of the archipelago. They bring in wood – most often illegally cut from the great forests of Borneo and Sulawesi – and sell it in the Jakarta market before sailing home with televisions and washing machines and other necessities less easy to come by on the distant islands.

In one of the local waterfront bars I had fallen in with a forester who had been kind enough to explain to me, over a number of beers, the nature of the distribution of harvestable and protected hardwood trees throughout the archipelago.* Later in the afternoon, when it was still insufferably hot, he took me down to the cool of the docks, and (to illustrate a point he was making about the ruin of Indonesia's rain forests) we walked past the ranks of traders' boats – all moored on the slant, their enormous prows arching over the quayside, young men and pye-dogs sleeping in the welcome shadows they cast.

The forester had mixed views about the traders who owned and sailed the ships. He admired them for their courage, their seamanship, their derring-do. He knew they travelled vast distances without proper navigational equipment; he liked their songs and poetry and wild romancing; he knew they would rarely permit a woman to sail on a vessel with them, that their seafaring tradition was everything. He marvelled at the physical strength of the sailors – was amazed still (though he had lived on Java for twenty years) at the way the minute, wiry and barefoot Bugis sailors would unload huge baulks of mahogany, pieces weighing twice as much as a man, and carry them down narrow and slippery gangplanks. But it was the timber they carried that vexed him: these seamen were unwittingly a part of the distribution chain that turned rare Javanese teak into baubles for Western living rooms, and they should, in his view, be stopped.

We went back to his flat, in a miniature skyscraper on the edge of the fish market. He lived on the twentieth floor, with his Chinese wife and three children. He had recently installed a steel front door, four inches thick, with bolts that made it look like the entrance to a bank vault. It was because of the anti-Chinese riots of 1998, he said – the scars and scorchmarks of which were still everywhere to be seen in Glodok, the Chinese area south of the docks. Mobs of Javanese had raided his apartment that terrible day, driven his wife and family into the street, stolen everything they owned. They had left his wife alone only because he was a Westerner, a foreigner.

But though this was all fascinating, and though his views on the rain forests and the Bugis traders were admirable, I found myself rather more enthralled by a picture that hung on his living-room wall. It was a fine eighteenth-century etching by the well-known Dutch cartographer Jan van Schley. It showed two well-laden Company ships, both heeling slightly before a good breeze, passing in front of an island with a pointed mountain. There was a row of trees a few feet up from the island's shore; but otherwise the island was made up of naked rock. Flaming from its summit were great tongues of fire and a roiling, boiling mass of dark smoke that towered above the pair of galleons, and almost mingled with the clouds above. The picture was called simply Het Brandende Eiland – ‘The Burning Island’ – and it was a depiction, without a doubt, of the otherwise little-chronicled eruption that supposedly took place in 1680.

He had picked up the etching in an antique shop in Jogjakarta some years before. He knew that it looked somewhat fantastical and was more likely to be a figment of van Schley's normally restrained imagination than an accurate picture of a real happening. But it was a powerful image none the less – a reminder for his living-room wall of the awful power of the volcano near which they all then lived. And a more general and emblematic reminder, given his own domestic circumstances, of the highly precarious, often highly tenuous nature of life in the East Indies.

Before the Certain Eruption of AD 1883

Two centuries after the 1680 eruption that was pictured or imagined by van Schley, when Krakatoa did finally make up her mind to explode, and did so cataclysmically, the city of Batavia had become in outward appearance an entirely different place.

In the 1880s it was no longer simply a Company town, for a start. War with Britain a century beforehand had essentially done for it. Naval blockades during the war had starved the VOC of cash and had kept thousands of tons of Java's choicest exports marooned in the Batavia warehouses; and then the Treaty of Paris of 1782 that ended the fighting in 1784* broke the Dutch


Jan van Schley's early etching Het Brandende Eiland, showing two caravels passing in front of what is presumed to be Krakatoa in full eruption, in what is further presumed to be 1680.

trading monopoly in the region and placed huge financial burdens on the once grand, formerly secure Company. The Dutch share in the world spice trade promptly dwindled, the revenues from the newly imported plantation crops of coffee, tea and quinine were never sufficient to balance the VOC's enormous expenses, and after two centuries of operation the weary old Company had been declared bankrupt. Its commission to govern formally expired in 1799, and the Dutch government took charge of the East Indies as a purely colonial possession.

Six years later Holland was overrun by forces of the globally ambitious French emperor Napoleon I, who promptly installed his brother Louis on the Dutch throne. War with England then became, and remained for the next ten years, the dominant reality of all European life. It was a reality that spread east to the Indies too, and specifically to Batavia in her new role as the capital city of what was now called the Dutch East Indies. The British were on the prowl in the Eastern seas; the Napoleonic Wars that raged in Europe had a considerable effect, much of it still very apparent today, on the way that the city of Batavia and the government that was run from it were allowed to develop.

It was indeed a Napoleonic maréchal, one Herman Willem Daendels, who was to make the most evident changes, and who would determine the shape of the city that existed at the time of Krakatoa's grand ultimate explosion. His orders, which he issued promptly on his appointment to the job of governor-general in 1808, were simple: by any means possible and with no expense spared he was to render Batavia proof from any possible British military attack.

He did this by formally abandoning all the castles, warehouses and fortifications at the seaside, effectively closing down what was dismissively called benedenstad, the lower town, the old Batavia, and building an entirely new capital five miles inland, made secure by its geography from any possible sea-borne ambuscades.

Old Batavia, the now squalid, cramped and run-down creation of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, had by the eighteenth century become notorious across the Orient as a pox-ridden graveyard for its resident Europeans. The new Batavia to the south would truly be worthy, he decided, of its long-unrealized sobriquet: The Queen of the East. With this in mind he decided to call his new uptown suburb Weltevreden, or ‘Well Contented’, since that is what he fully expected its grateful Dutch residents to be.

He tore down Batavia Castle and built for himself a palace on a vast plain of neatly clipped lawns, where the governors-general of the East Indies would maintain their city headquarters for decades to come. And as he moved the epicentre of administration, so genteel society moved with him, such that by the middle of the nineteenth century a vacuum had been left in the old town, as the famous British colonizer Thomas Stamford Raffles* was to note in 1817:

Streets have been pulled down, canals half filled up, forts demolished and palaces levelled with the dust. The Stadhuis, where the supreme court of justice and magistracy still assemble, remains; merchants transact their business in town during the day, and its warehouses still contain the richest productions of the island, but few Europeans of respectability sleep within its limits.

By 1858 a passing Dutchman, A. W. P. Weitzel, was to amplify the theme:

After sundown Batavia is silent and empty; not only the offices and large warehouses but even the shops are closed; no carriage is heard any more and the few indigenous people who move along the streets make no noise at all on their bare feet; and if the police had not ordered them to carry torches, they would wander there as dark shadows.

And though the first Thomas Cook guide was written in 1903, twenty years after the eruption, it did manage to catch something of the atmosphere of the new city that Daendels had created out of the wreck of the old Company town, and that was well into its full flowering at the century's end:

Whilst Batavia proper – the lower town with its counting houses and shops, its native and Chinese populations, its canals and moats, its dust and dirt, and old-fashioned mansions – makes anything but a charming impression, the upper town, to which all Europeans return in the evening, reminds one of a gigantic park, in which villas are built in rows, and great trees shade the broad and gravelly paths, and spacious squares bring air and wind.

The years immediately before the eruption were stable, prosperous, expansive. Whatever setbacks the city had endured in the aftermath of the VOC's collapse at the end of the eighteenth century had been more than amply reversed in the cosmopolitan, buccaneering, free-marketeering years of the latter half of the nineteenth. The Suez Canal opened in 1869: an appetite for goods from the East – now far closer to European markets, with the short-cut through the desert and ever faster ships on routes – meant that new trading houses were springing up, and new markets for new tropical commodities and wares were emerging on all sides. The population of Batavia, like that of other favoured Eastern cities, began to grow, and fast: it jumped from half a million in 1866 to well over a million at the time of the eruption (merely 12,000 of those were Europeans, 80,000 Chinese, the rest all native East Indians understandably eager to take advantage of the growing wealth around them). As early as 1832, according to an account written by the renowned Dutch scholar of Javanese, Professor P. P. Roorda van Eysinga, there were widespread signs of an accelerating prosperity:

... hundreds of carriages of European officials and shop-people raising clouds of dust on the streets, while the Chinese, with their recognizable and unpleasant features, with their long pigtails and silk caps, are everywhere busy hammering, sawing, painting, sewing, building and so on. Rich Arabs and Chinese rode through the streets, half-clad Javanese carried heavy loads, shabby Eurasian clerks walked beneath their sunshades to their offices, old women sold cakes, an Indian sat calmly eating his rice on a banana leaf, and vegetable, milk and fruit sellers, butchers and hill-dwellers offering monkeys and birds all mingled together in the crowd.

This gathering crush of people and the ever accelerating bustle and pace of Batavian life had a further effect: just as in British India, so the wealthier and more influential of the European townspeople moved from the sweltering streets of the capital city up into the hills, to a cool and green town that the government promptly christened Buitenzorg, or ‘Without a Care’, the equivalent of the French sans souci (it has now reverted to the native name it had before, the decidedly less carefree-sounding Bogor).

Buitenzorg, just like its corresponding hill-stations at Simla and Murree and Ootacamund in India, had already become a fashionable place at the beginning of the century, its reputation firmly anchored once Daendels had decided, in 1808, to shift his personal headquarters to a great country house that had been built there by an eighteenth-century VOC commander. His officials


A Jakarta city scene, around 1865.

warned him against trying to make the journey: in the torrential winter rains, they said, it would take thirty teams of horses to get him there. ‘I shall use thirty-one,’ he snorted – and promptly moved into what would be the principal palace for all the governors-general that followed him, Raffles included.

The house survives today, essentially unchanged: a vast, one-storeyed gleaming white palace, its immense airy rooms currently filled with pictures of well-endowed and slightly clad young women, the pictures and their subjects both equally assiduously collected, it is said, by Sukarno,* who brought modern Indonesia to independence. The parklands around the istana are alive with thousands of roe-deer, imported by the Dutch a century ago to provide affordable and acceptable meat for the official banquets they so delighted in giving.

The modern world then came with an unexpected suddenness to the Dutch-created world of colonial Java.

On 24 May 1844 Samuel Morse transmitted the famous biblical message ‘What hath God wrought!’ from the Supreme Court in Washington to his colleague, Alfred Vail, forty miles away in Baltimore. Twelve years later, over almost exactly the same distance, the electric telegraph – which was to play such a crucial role in the spreading of the story of Krakatoa – was formally introduced to the Indies, with the connection of the great palace at Buitenzorg in the summer of 1856 to the colonial offices down in Batavia. From then on the pace of technological innovation in Java quickened. The island was connected internationally in 1859, acquiring an undersea line to Singapore (though this failed after a few days) and then, in 1870, links to both the Malay States and Australia. These proved to be totally stable: and so by the time of the Krakatoa eruption, the places where the explosion was seen and felt and heard and suffered were all connected, by the dots and dashes of Mr Morse's code, to the world beyond.

The eruption of Krakatoa was, indeed, the first true catastrophe in the world to take place after the establishment of a worldwide network of telegraph cables – a network that allowed news of disaster to be flashed around the planet in double-quick time. The implications of this rapid and near-ubiquitous spread of information were profound – and to such an extent that they deserve a separate chapter, which follows later.

Houses in Batavia were connected to one another by telephone from 1882; gossip could spread, as well as news and warning and invitations. There had been a gasworks in the city, and the luxury of piped gas for cooking and street lighting, since 1862 (the present gasworks still has one ancient gas-lit street lamp outside the office, which sputters to life from time to time). There was a tramway – drawn by horses from 1869 (with ten of the tiny Sumbawan tram-ponies dying every week) and then by noisy, dirty, ever chuffing steam engines that ran from 1882 onwards (the poor – meaning the Indonesians – were forced to ride in separate carriages from the Europeans). Railway trains were first brought to Batavia by the Dutch government in 1869, with the first line – up to Buitenzorg, naturally – completed in 1873.

And in 1870 that most potent symbol of European civility brought across to the Orient finally made it to Batavia: an iceworks was built. No longer did the genever-drinking Hollanders have to drum their fingers on the teakwood bars at the Harmonie or the Concordia Military Club, as they waited for the ice-chips from Boston, the vessels of what the Americans called the frozen-water trade, to appear on the horizon off Sunda Kelapa. Now they could have locally made ice delivered to their fretworked porte cochère doorsteps in Weltevreden every day, or sent to the Indische who worked behind the club bar. And they could be content in the knowledge that if the dinner party proved too boisterous or the numbers of guests in the club altogether too many, the host could simply send out for more ice and it would be there, available for delivery, fresh and dripping cold, every day of every following year. ‘Everything in Batavia,’ wrote a well-satisfied traveller named W. A. van Rees in 1881, ‘is spacious, airy and elegant.’

Thus was Batavia quite comfortably arranged at the approach of the critical year of 1883. There was an air of calm contentment in the land (a long-drawn-out guerrilla war between the Dutch and Islamic-led forces in Aceh in northern Sumatra was proving costly for the Batavian government, but was otherwise of no great moment to the citizenry). The traders in Batavia were doing well. Just as in Kansas City, everything here was up to date: modern conveniences were being installed for the Europeans, and the huge numbers of indigènes flooding into the city each day were, if nothing else, testament to the capital's ever growing wealth.

The planters out in the countryside were rich as well, but their contentment was tinged by the perennial caution of the farmers, dependent on so many more factors than their own efforts. The newspapers of the day display an increasing concern in the 1880s, for example, that disease and blight might well ruin the crops; and so the Java planters began a programme of experiment and diversification – bringing in Robusta coffee plants from the Congo, for example, to ease the times when blight affected their Arabica or Liberia bushes.

Prospectors found tin, and began working it on the islands of Bangka and Billiton (with the brother of the then Dutch king, Willem III, the main promoter of the Billiton Tin Company). Wildcatters drilling shallow wells in Borneo found oil, though it would be some years before they thought it worth extracting, and many more years before the establishment of the huge combine that would one day become Royal Dutch Oil.

Plant importers, already delighted by the success of the cinchona trees that yielded as much as a seventh of their weight in pure quinine, brought in new rubber trees from Brazil (one of the ships carrying the precious seeds, bound for the Botanical Gardens in Buitenzorg, was passing through the Sunda Strait on the very day of the eruption).

Back in Holland, the moody and clumsily undiplomatic King Willem III was on the throne. In November 1880 he made a surprise appointment: Frederik 's Jacob, a 58-year-old former sailor, map-maker and sugar manufacturer who for the previous ten years had been director-general of the Dutch Railways, was to go to Batavia as governor-general. He took up his appointment the following April and conducted himself during his first years in office with an unassuming efficiency.


Frederik ‘s Jacob, governor-general of the East Indies in 1880.

There was a great deal of ceremonial about the tasks of a Dutch colonial governor-general – and it was not at all out of the ordinary to see Mr 's Jacob in an official uniform that was adorned (the better both to impress the natives, and to maintain the morale of the settlers) with yards of ornate gold brocade trim, silver and enamel stars, ribbons and garters of red, white and blue, knee-breeches and a tall felt hat with a feathered brim and a wild cockade. He wore it for the first official function of 1883, on 19 February, the formal celebration of the official birthday of his faraway Dutch king.

Although the birthday party in Batavia was a fine and formal affair, marred by nothing more untoward than a general eagerness for strong drink, nearly ninety miles away in a straight line to the west of the palace something was stirring, deep within one of the menacingly dark and forest-clad pinnacles at the northern end of the Sunda Strait. The island with its pointed mountain, first noticed and named almost exactly 300 years before, and which had been placid and beautiful for so very long, was now becoming restless again.