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



And I thought: The world is our relentless adversary, rarely outwitted, never tiring.

–a Dutch pilot caught near Anjer, quoted in ‘Krakatau‘, a short story by the novelist Jim Shepard, in his collection
Batting against Castro,

The rains are usually terrible in Java in the early part of the year, and the February of 1883 was no exception. There were floods in the lower-lying parts of old Batavia, and dozens of country roads were impassable. When the adjutants of the garrison artillery regiments inspected the city parade grounds on Waterlooplein on the afternoon of Sunday the 18th, they found the glutinous red mud too deep for their cannon-wheels. So they sent a message, via the aide-de-camp, to Governor-General ‘s Jacob up at his great white palace at Buitenzorg: the traditional military parade that had been planned for the following morning to offer loyal birthday greetings to his faraway imperial majesty King Willem III could not, it was greatly regretted, go ahead.

Some might have seen the cancellation as an omen. It was in any case not a happy time for the Dutch monarchy. The then head of the House of Orange – whose official titles included King of the Netherlands and Grand Duke of Luxembourg, and whose full and magisterial-sounding name was Willem Alexander Paul Frederik Lodewijk – belonged firmly to the glittering European aristocracy of a belle époque, an aristocracy that was only a very few years away from the corrosive effects of revolution and war, and neither wise enough nor prescient enough to realize it.

Willem, whose sixty-sixth birthday fell on 19 February, was a less than inspiring monarch. He had been on the throne for thirty-four years and was weary, moody, rigorously anti-Catholic and notoriously undiplomatic. He was also keenly frustrated by the limitations that had been imposed on the powers he had known as Crown Prince, which had been savagely cut back by the constitutional reforms initiated by his own father, Willem II.

But out in the distant colonies of the East, such regal maunderings were either unheard or ignored. Monday, the 19th of February, King's Day, was the culminating moment of a whole weekend of midwinter festivities. The party started on the Saturday, in the Willem III Grammar School, with a dance that the elite of the capital were expected to attend. The governor-general came down by special train from his mansion, made a speech welcoming everyone to the three-day saturnalia, inaugurated the dancing with a waltz with his wife, Leonie, admired the young girls' extravagantly full ball-gowns (waspishly noted by the columnist of the Locomotive as being fully a year behind the fashions of Paris), took part in the traditional eleven o'clock conga, and then took himself off home – leaving the party-goers to dance themselves into the kind of frenzy that was only permissible in a servant-rich colony with a long weekend of indolence and celebration stretching ahead.

It was a busy time for the governor-general. On the Sunday he had church service to attend, alms to dispense, military parades to bless – and then came unwelcome news about the weather and the consequent cancellation of the following day's cavalry tattoo. And on the next day, the Monday, ‘s Jacob had to get himself gussied up in his finest raiment once again and travel down from Buitenzorg to the sweltering and now rain-soaked capital for the much more formal (but paradeless) day of festivities. Every Dutch building was festooned with flags of red, white and blue, and the ships in the harbour flew pennants and signal bunting. In Waterlooplein, with its palaces and military barracks,* thousands of soldiers – both the regular officers from Holland and levies from the ‘loyal races’ throughout the islands – were arrayed in tidy ranks for inspection.

The king's representative in the Indies, who, when he deigned to come down to hot and steamy Batavia, held court at his immense and newly completed white marble Doric-columned palace on the Koningsplein – the King's Square – staged an official morning audience that day. He ordered to be arrayed before him his entire Council for the Indies, his senior civil servants, the generals, the bishops, the foreign diplomats (including the British consul-general, a Mr Cameron, and his American counterpart, Oscar Hatfield) and the favoured elite of Batavia high society. He announced, as was customary, an amnesty for a slew of prisoners. He also told his sweltering audience that a dozen or so banned persons – the concept of ‘banning’, so much a feature of later apartheid rules in that other former Dutch possession in southern Africa, was very much in force in the East Indies of the time – were to be relieved of their ordeal, as a birthday bounty from the representative of His Majesty.

The rest of the happy day was then devoted to games – which included cricket, a sport that had infected the East Indies after a visit from the Singapore Cricket Club ten years before – or to parties at the two principal clubs, the Harmonie and the Concordia Military, or to a massive public display of fireworks. ‘The Governor-General gave a gala dinner at the palace,’ reported the next day's Javasche Courant, in the breathlessly sycophantic tones of the times. ‘The palace was magnificently decorated and illuminated. All of the high authorities of the colony were invited, and they cheered with delight when the Governor-General raised his glass to the health of the King. Then there were wonderful fireworks on the Koningsplein, and thousands of people came out in the evening to enjoy the sight.’

Whether the worse than usual rains and the attendant cancellations were seen as any kind of augury or not, all seemed otherwise perfectly normal in a colony that this day of celebrations had already demonstrated was run with strict and meticulous order. The colonized people were at this time in their history by and large content, the merchants were prosperous, the big Javanese cities – Batavia, Surabaya, Bandung, Jogjakarta, Solo and Anjer among them – were generally peaceful and well mannered.

And yet, unknown to all but a few academics and seers, and to a few in those deeper recesses of Javanese and Sumatran kratons where the sultans lived and ruled, a multitude of strange and unrecognized forces were busying themselves – social, political, religious, economic forces that would erupt across the colony within just a very short while. The seeds of impending troubles – of risings, insurgencies, militancies that would in time mature to become generally anti-imperialist and specifically anti-Dutch – were just then starting to take root, were growing unseen, like mushrooms in the dark. We shall return to them later; for now they provide the faintest, barely audible basso continuo sounding beneath the more dramatic events that were to dominate the year.

Whatever might have then been going on beneath the outwardly content surface of East Indies society, it happened that at this very same time quite another array of unseen forces, which some historians would later link with the coming societal changes, were also gathering. These, though, were physical forces, forces related to the then unrecognized phenomena of tectonics and subductions and fault-zones and sea-floor spreading, forces that were regrouping after years of quiescence and that now – just as invisible as the coming changes in politics and social life – had begun to prepare for their awakening once more.

They were at work particularly beneath the surface of western Java, readying themselves for a six-month period of violent and nightmarish activity. They would first become apparent, and violently so, just a scant ninety days after the smoke and flames and thunder of the last fireworks of His Majesty's birthday party had died away.

It began with a sudden trembling. At first it was slight, more of a quivering of the air, a series of windy rumblings, of vague flutterings of atmosphere that were barely to be noticed at all. In normal times they would probably have passed without comment, other than by some Dutch planter in a bar who might point with amusement to the surface of his genever and get others to peer down at how shaken and rippled it was. Seismic events, where the rocks themselves moved, were a commonplace throughout the islands. Earthquakes and eruptions seemed as everyday as thunderstorms and plagues of mosquitoes.

But this one was a little different. For a start, the year had already been curiously quiet across the entire colony. Between January and May the Observatory at Batavia had logged only fourteen earthquakes, and, of these, four were in eastern Java and seven in Sumatra. The year was calm, people were lulled into a kind of easy complacency.

And western Java was in any case a quietish corner of the archipelago, seismically speaking. Everyone had heard the stories about ancient eruptions, true; and there were those who looked at maps and thought they had heard tell of when Java and Sumatra were one island that had broken apart during some terrific volcanic event, ages ago. But most believed that Krakatoa was long since extinct, inactive, peaceful and, most likely, dead. The Batavians who came out from town to swim on the clean white western beaches; the local bird-sellers who hawked pretty Anjer swallows to passengers on the ships setting off for the long sea passage back to Europe;* the bum-boat skippers who sold fruit and coral and curios to sea-borne passers-by: all thought of this corner of their islands as endlessly tranquil, a place far removed from the more violent activity that was so common near mountains like Bromo, or Merapi, or Merbapu.

But then the vibrations began. It was just after midnight, early on the morning of Thursday, 10 May, when the lighthouse keeper at what was then called First Point – the more southerly of a pair of lights on the enormous rocky headland at the south-eastern entrance to the Sunda Strait, known to approaching mariners as Java Head – felt what he knew only too well was a tremor in the air. The lighthouse suddenly seemed to shift on its foundations. The sea outside whitened, appeared to freeze briefly (as we now know it does above a depth charge), became uncannily smooth like a mirror, shivered slightly and then returned to its usual sickly swell.

It was really nothing much. There was no suggestion of where the vibration might have come from. The keeper checked his records: the last volcano to erupt anywhere near by was Lamongan, and that lay 600 miles to the east. Whatever had prompted this particular rumbling was probably closer than that. Though it caused no obvious damage, it was strong enough, unusual enough in pattern and curious enough in location for the lighthouse keeper to log it, and to note in a report that he wrote during the following weekend and sent off to Batavia with his other weekly summaries.

Five days after the initial vibration the same happened again, except that this time it was stronger and more sustained, more widely felt. What had been felt in west Java was now felt on the other side of the Sunda Strait, in Sumatra. The Dutch contrôleur in the south Sumatran town of Ketimbang, Willem Beyerinck, was sufficiently roused by the thudding, rumbling bangs occurring beneath his feet on the night of 15 May to send a telegram, an official confidential message presenting all the facts to his superior, the Resident of Lampong. It took him five further days to pluck up the courage to send it: he had to make sure he was right. In the end he made the call: powerful tremors, he reported, were now being felt continuously up and down the Sumatran coast on the northern and western side of the Strait.

This was the first official word that something untoward was in the offing. And coming from a civil servant with the rank of controller, the news had considerable weight. Controllers in the colonial service of Holland were not a breed of men given to panic.*

The ships were the next to take note. The Sunda Strait – seventeen miles across at its narrowest – was then, as today, a frantically busy waterway. The number of vessels passing between Java and Sumatra on their way to and from Europe and the Americas on the one hand, and China and the more distant reaches of the East on the other, was prodigious in the 1880s. There were at least ten ships in the vicinity when Krakatoa's first eruption began: those definitely known to be near by included the American brig A. R. Thomas; the British barque Actaea, commanded by a Captain Walker; the Dutch mail-packet Zeeland, commanded by a Captain MacKenzie, on her way from Batavia to the Indian Ocean and then by long sea to the Netherlands; the Sunda, a steam ferry-boat skipping her way from Batavia to a series of local ports; the Archer, an Australian passenger steamship of the Queensland Royal Mail Line; the Conrad, a Dutch mailboat heading northwards from Europe to Batavia; a Dutch barque, the Haag, under the command of a Captain Ross; the German warship Elisabeth, heading south from Singapore; and, more mundane than romantic, the hoppers Samarang and Bintaing, both shuttling between Java and Sumatra, performing harbour drudgery on behalf of the Batavia Port Authority.

Each had a story to tell. The first to note something unusual in the log was the Elisabeth, a German corvette returning home to the motherland after two years in China and Japan, time spent doing picket duty on the Imperial Navy's Far Eastern Station.*

The ship had called briefly at Singapore and then, though it bypassed Batavia, had stopped instead at Anjer to coal, take on water and drop off a single passenger. The Elisabeth left the tiny port's quayside on the morning of Sunday, 20 May. She turned towards the south, trimmed her sails and set a course that would take her down the Sunda Strait and out into the open ocean.

Her master, a Captain Hollmann, then became the first European to see the very beginning of the eruption of the mountain. He was the first to write a report about what now seemed to be behind all the rumbling and trembling that had been noticed around the region since the lighthouse keeper's summary of the curious vibrations that he had experienced earlier in the month. It was 10.30 on the hot, cloudless summer morning. Captain Hollmann was looking from his bridge directly across to starboard towards the 2,625-foot southern summit of Krakatoa,* when suddenly something took place that he never imagined possible. Without warning:

... we saw from the island a white cumulus cloud, rising fast. It rose almost vertically until, after about half an hour, it had reached a height of about 11,000 meters. Here it started to spread like an umbrella, probably because it had reached the height of the anti-trade winds, so that soon only a small part of blue sky was seen on the horizon. When at about 4.00 in the afternoon a light SSE breeze started, it brought a fine ash dust which increased strongly… until the entire ship was covered in all parts with a uniform fine grey dust layer.

Faced with the astonishing sight of a white cloud that was streaking up into the heavens, reaching what his navigating officer calculated was fully seven miles into the clear blue sky, the ship's marine chaplain, Father Heims, allowed himself a little more latitude than his superior in the Imperial Navy, and wrote:

... the crew had assembled on the upper deck in clean Sunday clothes, to be mustered in divisions. The commander had just looked at the parading crew and started to inspect his pretty clean ship, when a certain motion was noticed among the officers which were assembled on the upper deck and bridge in their Sunday clothes. Glasses and heads all turned towards the lonely countryside in which the shores of Sumatra and Java coincided with the small island of Krakatau: there, at least 17 nautical miles distant, an enormous shining wide vapour column rose extremely rapidly to half the horizon, and reached within a short time the colossal height not below 11,000 meters, contrasting in its light-coloured snow-like appearance with the clear blue sky. It was convoluted like a giant wide coral stock…

At this point the right reverend's prose turns rather more purple than he probably would on reflection have wished. He compares Krakatoa's rising plume of steam and smoke first to a giant cauliflower, then to a billy club, next to ‘the convoluting steam column from the smoke stack of a gigantic standing steam locomotive’ and finally to an odd confection that he christens ‘three-dimensional steam balls’.

Mercifully, after only a few lines of such description, he abandons his quest for literary permanence, and returns to writing for his parishioners back home, who were no doubt eagerly awaiting his reappearance in the pulpit. In doing so, he provides some highly useful evidence for those who would later study this first phase of the eruption:

We did not hear any detonations. The veil over the sky was so dense and uniform that the almost full moon was only barely visible during the night… on the next morning… the ship, which was so clean 24 hours ago, looked very strange: it looked like a mill ship or, more precisely, like a floating cement factory. On the outside everything – ship's wall, torpedo pipes, the entire masts, etc. – was covered uniformly with a grey sticky dust… it had accumulated thick and heavy on the sails; the steps of the crew sounded muffled… The people enjoyed collecting the lava dust as polishing material, and it was not very heavy work to collect the stuff in sacks and boxes.

The sky above this ash rain disaster appeared like a large bell made of rather dull milky glass in which the sun hung like a light blue lamp… for another 75 German miles we had to sit in the evening with our faces looking backwards as we sat together trying to get some air. The distribution of the ash-fall would be over an area at least as large as Germany…

One by one the other ships in the neighbourhood reported their news. Some of the reports were made public within days or weeks of the event; in later years the logs were found and published, or private letters surfaced from their amazed commanders or crew, as well as messages from passengers who had been aboard and knew that they had seen something strange and wanted, earnestly, to tell of it.

The British ship Actaea, for instance, which was sailing eighty miles west of Krakatoa, noticed a peculiar green colour' in the morning skies to the east-south-east; by mid-afternoon her sails and rigging were covered in fine ash and dust; and when the sun set it did so as ‘a silver ball’.

The hopper Samarang, en route to the port of Merak, felt a sudden swell, massive enough to lift her and her screw clear out of the water.

The Zeeland, sailing with her full complement of passengers and mail back towards Holland, passed within five miles of Krakatoa.* Her compass needle suddenly began to spin round and round, uselessly. When it settled it showed a deviation from normal of twelve degrees. Steam and debris then roared up from the most northerly of the three cones that could be seen on the island, and to the crew a deafening noise began to sound, seeming to combine the thunder of heavy artillery and rattle of continuous machine-gun fire.

Captain MacKenzie next saw to his astonishment a huge column of black cloud. Not white – despite what others had said he was sure it was, at this moment, black. It rose swiftly above the mountain, with lightning flashes deep within the clouds, and a continuous crackling sound. The sea all around the island was punctured by immense grey waterspouts rising into the air; it became so dark he had to reduce speed to five knots. There being no radio at the time, he frantically raised a string of coloured signal flags, alerting all who might be watching him. The Lloyd's agent at Anjer certainly was, for he noted in his log that MacKenzie was fast standing into danger, and others who came near him might suffer the same fate.

And then came the moment when a delft dinner plate fell off a dining-room table in the old part of Batavia and broke into a thousand pieces.

The plate had belonged to Mrs van der Stok, a middle-aged Dutch lady who at the time of its breakage – shortly after ten minutes to eleven on the Sunday morning – was quite probably laying her table for family luncheon. It had been a part of her dowry on the day she had married Dr J. P. van der Stok – the distinguished scientist from Utrecht who had brought her out to Batavia some years before on his appointment as director of the colony's Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory. The couple lived in a single-storey house attached to the Observatory, and on that hot and cloudless Sunday morning both could not help but notice that something, somewhere, had gone badly awry.

First there was the plate, lying smashed on the marble floor of the dining room. Then in the living room Dr van der Stok himself, reading the Sunday edition of the Java Bode – the word means ‘messenger’ – heard all the windows and doors rattle and bang. From somewhere to the west came a low, rumbling sound, like that of distant artillery. He got out his pocket-watch and noted the time: 10.55 a.m.

He walked across to the Observatory, noticing immediately that the needles and pens suspended by their cocoon-threads on his magnetic declinometer were ticking and trembling violently – not in the usual side-to-side sweeps that one might expect from an earthquake, but in a series of buzzing up-and-down motions that did not register properly on the paper rolling from the drum. The more he thought about it, the more he realized something odd: the vibrations were not so much being felt through his feet, as if they had emanated from somewhere deep in the earth; they were in fact being felt in the air. True, there were ground tremors, and buildings were shaking – this was self-evident. But most of the shaking was coming through the very atmosphere itself. And vibration of this kind was the particular hallmark of an erupting volcano, not of the subterranean shaking of an earthquake.

Later he would see more commonplace left-to-right activity on his declinometer – but only when the ash had begun to drift down over the city that evening. Then he surmised quite rightly that the magnets were going wild simply because the falling ash was rich in iron, like a blizzard of tiny compasses.

For now, though, it was all vibration and rumbling and the occasional period of low and menacing thuds. Van der Stok knelt down and put his ear to the ground. Nothing. Nothing deep-seated. And what was more, these vibrations were continuing for long, long periods – an hour already, with no signs of abating. Earthquake vibrations last for matters of seconds only, a few minutes at the most – followed by periods of quiet, and then aftershocks, and then more movement and mayhem. This was very different.

And all of this made him now, at noon on that Sunday, quite certain that he knew what was happening. These particular kinds of vibrations were absolutely typical of those caused by a volcano. And so each time a fresh explosion of trembling started again, he noted the time in his official log-book. Had it been an earthquake, there would be less need to catalogue the aftershocks, the timings of which were in any case mathematically predictable. But this was evidence of a volcano, somewhere, and the measuring of its palpitations might give some clue as to its future behaviour.

All the while van der Stok was kept busy fending off inquiries from worried Batavians – men and women who flooded to his Observatory, even on this sunny Sunday, wanting to know just what was happening? This, most of them said, was like nothing they had ever known before. There had been a curious trajectory about each person's morning on that day. They had awakened to the unusual sounds, and they had been then merely puzzled. By the time they breakfasted, they had become concerned. The Christians among them had gone off to their churches, feeling moderately alarmed. After matins they had ventured back out on to the streets, by now in their droves, and they were, at least privately, in moods that were at first quite agitated and, as the thunder wore on, very apprehensive indeed.

The director noted with the dispassion of a trained observer a distinct racial difference in public attitudes to the events. The Dutch who called in to see him appeared to be outwardly calm, the men displaying either the equanimity of their long experience in the Orient, or the public stoicism, the stiff upper-lip, the code of pas devant, that they felt appropriate to their standing as proudly indifferent colonials. The native Javanese, on the other hand, seemed to be much more deeply concerned, with many frightened and, in more than a few cases, quite terror-struck.

To the Javanese and Sumatrans, and especially to the coastal people called the Sundanese – who were and still are a very distinct group well known for their mystical beliefs and deep piety – an event like this out in the Sunda Strait was heavy with suggestive power. In their view the eruptions showed that the spirit of the mountain, the widely feared Orang Alijeh, had for some reason been made angry, was now roaming abroad, breathing fire and smoke and displaying his displeasure. Such a happening could only bode ill for all. Most of the colonials officially and instinctively disapproved of the natives' superstitions, and van der Stok himself was icily dismissive. And yet some of the wiser old colonials did wonder about such things – at least, they would wonder after the terror was fully over, many months hence: what had it really meant?

For the moment, though, what was of more immediate concern was the need for a widespread battening down of the hatches, with the inhabitants of western Java and southern Sumatra waiting to see just what Nature – or the gods – had in mind to hurl down at them. For the next two days they had a great deal to keep them anxious.

The little south Sumatran town of Ketimbang is at the best of times a dreadfully vulnerable place: not only is it on a funnel-shaped bay, where the spring tides can rush in most dangerously; not only is it sited on mangrove swamps and mud-flats, ready to be inundated by every rising of the waters; but it also lies directly beneath a small volcano called Rajabasa – the mountain's flanks rise steeply to more than 4,000 feet immediately behind the cluster of coastal houses and their tiny fishing port. Willem Beyerinck, the colonial controller who had been one of the first to note the ominous initial rumblings five days before, was in time to be tested harshly by what happened. His wife maintained a close watch on the entire affair, from beginning to end, and kept a detailed journal. In May, or so it seemed from her detached and insouciant tone, the early stages of the eruption appeared to her more inconvenient than truly alarming.

When it all began on the Sunday morning she had been taking the air on her veranda, idly watching the ships that passed by up and down the ever crowded Strait. She would derive hours of pleasure from watching the long-distance boats fresh out from Batavia, their sails all slipped and bellying in the breeze as the craft began scudding their way towards Europe. There was always a great deal of shipping to see: the view from the controller's elegant little house was magnificent.

But then, without warning, she was jolted from her reverie: another hammer-blow, another set of violent tremors started up once more. ‘We were much bothered,’ she wrote. The vibrations were best seen in the water barrels kept stored in the bathroom, she said, since their surfaces rippled prettily with every detonation. She took up her diary, and began to make notes of yet another subterranean interruption.

She was writing all this in her journal when, quite unannounced, a prahu arrived and was hurriedly slithered up on to the mud, its long bamboo outrigger propping it to one side. Eight frightened-looking fishermen leaped from it, ran up the beach and made straight for Beyerinck's office. They jabbered excitedly, in a mixture of Sundanese and pidgin Dutch. They were from the island of Sebesi, they said, and they had all been together that morning – on Krakatoa.

They had gone there to gather wood for boat-building. They had been felling trees and stacking cords, chatting contentedly among themselves, when suddenly they heard what they assumed was a burst of cannon-fire from a warship. It was probably, they thought, a Dutch man-o‘-war exercising out in the Strait. At first they paid little attention, and carried on felling trees – until there was a second, terrifyingly loud report, which made them dash down to the beach to see what was going on.

As soon as they got there, they said, they saw the very beach itself split wide open, and jets of black ash and red-hot stones roared out into the air. They fled in terror, running for safety and then diving into the sea to swim out to where they had left the boat. The tide had risen dramatically, they said: just an hour beforehand they had been able to wade to the mooring-place.

The controller's wife, by all accounts a sceptical and somewhat hard-bitten lady, was in no mood to listen to these excitable natives. She told her husband, acidly, that it was simply impossible for a beach to erupt. He was ready to agree, to shoo the fishermen away. But then Beyerinck's superior suddenly arrived from his own headquarters further up Lampong Bay, in the little port-city of Telok Betong.

He was a Mr Altheer, then just a month away from the end of his five-year posting as Resident of Lampong, and he was keenly eager to do the right thing and leave with his reputation in good standing. He had just been telegraphed by the governor-general, he told his junior; he had been ordered to investigate a situation that could be heard by, and was now fast alarming, the entire Batavian citizenry. Whatever the risks, he and Beyerinck must leave for Krakatoa immediately.

And so the two men jumped into the official government launch that had brought the Resident down from Telok Betong, and they bumped out into the rough waters of the bay, turned due south and sped through what turned out to be, quite bizarrely, wave upon wave of floating pumice stone. They headed past the two islands of Sebuku and Sebesi that hid Krakatoa from their view, dodged masses of pumice and charred and floating trees, were drenched by massive sudden waves, enveloped in clouds of choking gas and a miasma of falling ash. It is twenty-four miles from Ketimbang to Krakatoa: it took the men four hours to bring the coastline of the island into some kind of view.

And though we do not know from their records whether the pair actually landed, we do know that they spotted exactly what it was that had so alarmed the fishermen before them: the northernmost beach of Krakatoa was indeed belching fire and smoke, and the smallest and most northerly of the three cones of the island, Perboewatan, was in the process of erupting, the roaring and belching and noise of its concussions getting stronger with every minute.

The two officials turned tail, their worries for their own safety finally taking precedence over Mr Altheer's concern for his colonial career. They sped back through an ever more dense coagulation of hot grey pumice, making their way through the fast-falling tropical night to the coast and the Ketimbang telegraph station. Shortly before midnight they sent a hurriedly composed message in Morse code, marked for the eyes of the governor-general only.

Within minutes came a reply: the Resident of Bantam, on the western side of Java across the Strait, reported seeing essentially the same thing: flames, belches of fire, rafts of floating rock, ash falls. And he had heard it too: the noise of what was undoubtedly an eruption, memorably terrible, and sounding to him like the crashing, screeching roar of a great ship's anchor chain that was being endlessly raised, its shackles banging hard and rustily against the vessel's sides.

More evidence had meanwhile been streaming in from all quarters. The northbound sailing vessel Conrad, enveloped in an inferno of choking ash and dust in which the ambient temperature was at least ten degrees higher than it had been elsewhere, had battled for well over five hours to pass through a near-impenetrable field of floating pumice, its grey masses packed tightly, like ice-floes. Forests on the flanks of Krakatoa were seen to be ablaze. The doctor on board the southbound Sunda saw bright-red clusters of fire, ‘like sheaves of wheat’, bursting from the column of smoke that poured from Perboewatan. He saw a new crater on the island's western side spurt a torrent of dark-red fire. Later that evening, when the Sunda was thirty miles away from the eruption and almost in the open ocean, the doctor asked a sailor to drop a bucket into the sea, and the man pulled back up only pumice, with barely any water at all.

Peculiar, ominous sounds had been heard up in Singapore, more than 500 miles to the north. An English plant-collector named Forbes, working more than 1,300 miles away in Timor, reported a sprinkling of ash around his grass hut. There were some fanciful reports as well: someone reported that all the chronometers in the government observatory at Surabaya in east Java, 500 miles away, had mysteriously jumped forward, and that the time ball by which ships in harbour might learn the hour had somehow stuck on its shaft. These later turned out to be nonsense.

On the other hand the usually circumspect Lloyd's agent – a man who in Anjer owned a small pension, the Anjer Hotel, down by the docks* – turned in what sounded like an entirely responsible report. He scribbled a hasty telegram to his head office in Batavia, for eventual transmission to the insurance exchange in London, with the first impression of what he was seeing: ‘Krakatan [sic] casting forth fire, smoke and ash, accompanied by explosions and distant rumblings.’ Only later in the day was he able to send a rather more discursive account.

So now, more than a week after the initial feeble quiverings had first been felt at the lighthouse, the cause and the source of it all had been seen, and in action. It was now well beyond any doubt that the long-dormant (but apparently not extinct) island of Krakatoa was in an entirely new phase of its geological development, active once again and fast starting to erupt. What would happen next, the scale of the catastrophe that would envelop the region in a little more than ten weeks' time, would positively beggar belief.

And yet two days later, after its alarming opening salvo, the island quietened down again. A thin plume of white smoke and steam still rose above the Perboewatan crater, hinting that something was continuing to roil beneath the surface. But outwardly, all looked tranquil once more. The low, triple-cratered island and its neighbours slumbered hotly, surrounded by a calm and deep-blue sea; and when viewed from the ports of west Java, they again became near-invisible, compared to the hazily violet and distantly looming silhouettes of the truly enormous volcanoes of Sumatra.

The two peaceful days went past, then three. After a fourth the governor-general decided that if all were really quiet, it might now be prudent to go and take a closer look at Krakatoa, both to see what had already transpired and, more importantly, to see if such an event looked likely to take place again.

The first-ever government inspector to visit the island had done so just three years before. He was a mining engineer from Doorn named Rogier Diederik Marius Verbeek, and he would make his name in later years with his monumental, 546-page study of the great eruption of '83. But in July 1880, when he first set foot on the ‘geologically completely unknown terrain' of the island, he was himself quite unknown, a specialist only in the coal mines of east Borneo. He found himself near Krakatoa while on temporary


Rogier Verbeek.

attachment to Holland's splendidly named Imperial Beacons & Coastal Lighting Service, which had a small ship named the Egeron bound for an inspection of a lighthouse on a clifftop with the rather less regal name of Flat Corner. ‘On my return trip to Batavia I was able to pay a short visit* to the islands in the Sunda Strait,’ of which Krakatoa was by far the most interesting.

He sketched the four islands of the group; he took a small boat to the northern end, close to the soon-to-be-notorious 400-foot peak of Perboewatan; he chipped away with his hammer at what was evidently a recently made lava flow; he took samples of what he later decided was a rather unusual dark andesitic obsidian – a glassy,* evidently very rapidly melted-and-cooled rock that in this case had, most interestingly, a highly acidic character.

Its composition was in fact much more than simply interesting: it was highly suggestive of its having come from a melt of the half-oceanic, half-continental mix of materials that had been made deep inside what geology now knows to be a typical subduction zone. But Verbeek could not possibly have known this, nor could he have made any but the most primitive surmises about the rock's observed and rather curious acidity. The very concept of a subduction zone was wholly unknown back in the nineteenth century; along with the mysteries of sea-floor spreading and continental drift, these zones were only to be understood almost a century later.

And in any event Verbeek was not going to be allowed to make any further observations, since the crew of the Egeron's pinnace were champing at the bit, eager to steam on home, and they kept blowing their siren to bid him stop hammering. He was frustrated too: it turned out to be far too difficult for him to pass along the Krakatoa shore through the dense jungle that stretched clear down to the sea. ‘There was no time,’ he admitted lamely, ‘to collect any rock samples from the southern part… that is, of the peak.’ But, he added drily, ‘Little did I think that the places where I hammered rocks would disappear altogether three years later.’

Three years later Dr Verbeek very nearly missed what would be for him the culminating event of his geological career. He had left for Utrecht, to supervise the making of a geological map of south-western Sumatra, and only by the greatest good fortune did he come back to Java on leave in the summer of 1883. He actually completely missed the first part of the eruption, even so – his ship steamed past the fire-torn and half-ruined island in July, six weeks after these first eruptions had begun. His absence forced Governor-General 's Jacob to choose in his place one of his deputies, an obscure mining engineer named A. L. Schuurman, to make the hazardous first journey across to Krakatoa. His mission was simple: to see what might be seen, and to make an official report on whether anything devastating was likely to happen again.

There was no problem in finding a suitable boat for Mr Schuurman. A combination of a widespread popular fascination with what had taken place and the eagerness of local shipowners to satisfy that fascination – the force of the market, in other words – were to supply him with exactly what he needed.

The British chaplain in Batavia, the Reverend Philip Neale, was to write later that since ‘the spectacle was regarded by the Dutch as a curiosity… an agreeable excursion was made to the island by one of the mail steamers trading in the Java Sea’. The Netherlands Indies Steamship Company* was the first to recognize the tourist potential of the event, and came up in short order with an excursion vessel, the 1,239-ton Gouverneur-Generaal Loudon. On Saturday, 26 May, representatives from the Company tacked up notices in the Harmonie and Concordia Clubs advertising the delights of such an ‘agreeable excursion’ and announcing a competitive price of only twenty-five guilders. By Sunday morning they had closed their lists, such was the press of interest – and on Sunday evening the party set off. It was seventeen days after the first vibration, only a week after the first eruption. The Loudon was filled to its capacity of eighty-six passengers, and the government's Mr Schuurman was very much among them.

After steaming through the night towards a ‘purple, fiery glow' that could be seen in the middle of Sunda Strait, the passengers watched as dawn finally broke.

The view of the island was fantastic: it was bare and dry, instead of rich with tropical forests, and smoke rose from it like smoke coming from ovens. Only the high peak [of Rakata] had some green left, but the flat northern slope [of Perboewatan] was covered with a dark grey ash layer, here and there showing a few bare tree stumps as meagre relics of the impenetrable forests which not too long ago covered the island. Horrible was the view of that sombre and empty landscape, which portrayed itself as a picture of total destruction rising from the sea, and from which, with incredible beauty and thundering power, rose a column of smoke. The cloud was only several dozens of meters wide at its foot, wheeling to a height of 1,000 to 1,200 meters while widening, then rising from there to 2,000 to 3,000 meters in height and in the meantime fading in colour, delivering its ash to the eastern wind which, falling as a dark fog, formed the background of the tableau.

The Loudon's captain, T. H. Lindeman, kept well away from the island. But he loaned Schuurman a small boat, in which the engineer and a small party of curious daredevils approached the northern end of Krakatoa. The beach was covered with pumice; they struggled on shore through ash, into which they sank up to their calves.

Following the tracks of the most courageous, or perhaps the most stupid, we climbed inland with no further obstacle than the ashes which gave under our feet, the route being over a hill from where we could see, emerging from the ash, some broken tree trunks showing signs that their branches had been violently stripped off. The wood was dried, but nothing indicated that it had been alight, or smouldering. No leaf or branch could be found in the ash, and it is therefore likely that the deforestation must be attributed to a whirlwind…

The foolhardiness of the explorers knew no bounds. They climbed the crater, knowing how dangerous and unpredictable it had to be, and stared down in amazement into the deep, dish-shaped basin. Its bottom, Schuurman noted, was covered with a ‘dull, shiny crust’, which occasionally emitted a rosy glow, through which a powerful column of smoke escaped with what he then admitted was a truly frightening noise.

The clouds of smoke appeared to break through as with difficulty but with unmatched force, and they seemed to flee in numerous but closely linked, tremendous bubbles whose internal friction caused the turning and convoluting movement of the clouds in the lower part of the column of smoke… only at the edges of the point of eruption could the exhalation of steam from a number of cracks and gaps be observed.

The men stayed for most of the day, burning the soles of their shoes, coughing and spluttering in the clouds of ash, occasionally darting for shelter when the crater burped out a greater than usual bubble of smoke and sulphurous gas. And then, just after six o'clock, the tropical darkness began to fall (as Krakatoa is only six degrees south of the equator), and Captain Lindeman sounded the Loudon's steam-horn to urge everyone to get off the island. One passenger, a Mr Hamburg, stayed a few moments longer to take photographs. Then everyone pulled out. ‘We started our return trip to Batavia at 8 o'clock in the evening,’ Schuurman noted at the end of his official report, ‘thankful for the beauty and for a spectacle which made a deep impression on all, and an unforgettable one on most.’

For the next eight weeks, all seemed quiet – so quiet that, even though technically speaking the eruption was still going on, with smoke screeching from the Perboewatan crater and ash blowing high into the skies, ‘visitors to Batavia, unless they had made inquiries, might have failed to hear of its existence at all’. The geologist H. O. Forbes, pleading for information about this unknown period of Krakatoa's life, added that many of the ships' reports that had come in from this time seemed to have been written ‘either with the mind bewildered and confused by the terrifying incidents amid which the officers found themselves, or from the after-recollection of the events, of which under such circumstances the important dry facts of time, place and succession are liable to be unconsciously misstated’.

One seemingly reliable report that did come to light – though half a century later – was from a young Liverpool seaman named R. J. Dalby, who in June was aboard the barque Hope, six months out from South Wales bound for Saigon. While his vessel called in at Anjer for telegraphed orders – this was in the days before ships' radios, of course – Dalby was given shore leave, and he took a canoe across the Strait. The view on all sides, he remembered for a radio audience in 1937, was

... a real paradise, a profusion of vegetation rising from the seashore to the summit of hills several thousand feet high. I well remember one particular evening, just at the time when the land and sea breezes were at rest, the very atmosphere impressed one with a mystical awe. It was enhanced by the subtle scent of the spice trees, so plentiful on the island and, to crown it all, the sweet yet weird and melancholy chant of some natives, paddling their canoe close in to the dark shore. There were three of us in the boat, and we rested a long time trying to take in the strange grandeur of our surroundings; it was at this time that we noticed a long straight column of black smoke, going up from the peak of Krakatoa Island…

Was Dalby's recollection new evidence, perhaps, that by June the high peak of Rakata had now joined Perboewatan in erupting? Certainly a second crater had opened up later on that month – after a stiff wind had died down on 24 June, people on the Javan coast could see quite clearly that two separate columns of smoke were rising, and that the most northerly of the two was rising majestically. The controller of Ketimbang, the doughty Mr Beyerinck who had first paddled out to the island in May, went back again in July and found two craters – but the more northerly was not on Rakata, but at the foot of the insignificant peak in the island's centre, Danan.

Dr Verbeek himself then saw Krakatoa, on 3 July, as he passed by on his way back to Batavia from Europe. One must suppose he knew nothing about what had just taken place: while Krakatoa had been busily erupting, he had been sunning himself, somewhere between Gibraltar and Suez, aboard the eastbound packet vessel Prinses Marie. The last time he had seen the island was in 1880: now, in the dark of the small hours,* he could see very little more than a vague red glimmer on the vessel's port side.

And finally, on 11 August, a Dutch army captain named H. J. G. Ferzenaar, who had been ordered to prepare a survey of the island for the military topographic service, landed and spent two days there. He went alone – the local governor (‘unable to keep his promise‘) refused to go, and all the other officials he approached were too timid.

Ferzenaar found a bewildering variety of signs that the island might be readying itself anew for something quite spectacular. There were now at least three craters erupting – one, which he thought looked especially potent, was on the southern side of the mid-island peak, Danan. All told, he counted fourteen vents in the rocky surface – fumaroles, one would call them now – from which


The last map ever made of Krakatoa, sketched sixteen days before the eruption by Captain H. J. G. Ferzenaar. All but the southernmost peak of Rakata vanished in the cataclysm.

greyish or pink smoke was rising. Most of these vents were also on this highly unstable-looking southern flank of Danan.

He paddled his prahu around the eastern coast of Krakatoa, turned around the northern headland, passed on the outer side of the small sliver of an island on the north-west side – and then called it a day. Heavy smoke made visibility difficult; navigation, especially in a vessel without power, was exceptionally trying. He drew a map that showed as much detail as possible, including the tiny spots and streaks of red from which the new eruptions were beginning.

This small and handsome map would have to do: any proper survey of the island had ‘to wait until later, because measuring there is still too dangerous; at least, I would not like to accept the responsibility of sending a surveyor. A large portion could be mapped from other islands, but I consider a survey on the island itself inadvisable.’

His caution was well founded. Captain Ferzenaar was, as it happened, the last human soul ever to set foot on Krakatoa. His map represented the final time that anyone would be able to see the entire fifteen square miles of tropical island – an island of people and forests and wild animals and visitors and history, which had existed in this place for at least the previous 60,000 years. The good captain sailed his tiny craft away from Krakatoa on the evening of 12 August. Two weeks and one day later most of the island that he had drawn suddenly exploded; its billions upon billions of tons turned into vapour and disappeared from the surface of the earth, for ever.