THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE TERRIFIED ELEPHANT - Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 - Simon Winchester

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



Eau de Cologne: A perfumed spirit invented by an Italian chemist, Johann Maria Farina (1685-1766), who settled in Cologne in 1709. The usual recipe prescribes twelve drops of each of the essential oils, bergamot, citron, neroli, orange and rosemary, with one dram of Malabar cardamoms and a gallon of rectified spirits, which are distilled together.

- definition from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1959

The final Monday of July 1883 was one of the last quiet days ever to be experienced on Krakatoa, an island that now had precisely four weeks remaining before it was blasted out of existence. It was also on that day, 30 July, that John and Anna Wilson's Great World Circus, long expected and universally welcomed, finally arrived in Batavia town.

They had been to Batavia many times before, the canny Scotswoman Miss Wilson well knowing they could be certain of a grand colonial crowd. On this particular occasion, the performers and their animals had sailed in on the liner from Singapore, and they promised their audiences the staging of amazements and delights in an atmosphere of more sumptuous comfort than could possibly be imagined.

Two years before, members of the audience had complained they were too crowded, and too hot. So for this visit Mrs Wilson had brought with her from New York a brand-new tent, a giant she had christened the Mammoth. As the guy-men hauled up the immense acreage of bleached canvas on the west side of the Koningsplein, so passers-by gasped at what they saw and heard. Room for 5,000 seats! the posters exclaimed. Real gas-lamp illuminations! blared the barker's horn. Unbelievable new attractions! proclaimed the newspaper advertisements including, the first time ever seen in the Orient, Cannonball Holtum from Denmark, and His Incredible, Death-Defying Feats of Courage and Fearlessness.

This time, the Batavians said to themselves as they handed over their one-guilder coins for tickets and watched the final preparations being made, Wilson's Great Circus truly was going to be the greatest that Java had ever seen.

The circus was to be - or so everyone thought at the time -the crowning glory of what had thus far turned out to be a delightful summer season. The volcanic grumblings and growlings over to the west in the Sunda Strait continued, true; but now that the initial surprise of the May eruption was over, the fact of all the fire and smoke and occasional tremblings of the earth had become part of the reality, an established routine. No one really gave it a thought - it meant no more than the occasional tremor might mean today to someone in Tokyo, or Los Angeles, or along the San Andreas Fault. Batavians made jokes about it all. It was not going to be allowed to cause any disruption of the gay social round - though one of the Batavia papers, the East Indies edition of the Algemeen Dagblad, did sound rather exasperated in June when it remarked sourly, ‘What musical entertainment there is


This advertisement for Anna Wilson's Circus promises ‘a great and brilliant performance on behalf of the victims of the recent Banten catastrophe’.

can hardly be enjoyed because of all the shaking noises of the doors and windows caused by Krakatau.’

None the less the social year that had begun so splendidly in February with the King's Day Dance at the grammar school - about which the papers still talked in the summer, so successful was it said to have been - rolled on, unstoppably. In mid May, for example, horse-racing was held up in the mountain cool of Buitenzorg, and a costume-ball in the stewards' hall on the Sunday of the two-day meeting - Governor-General ‘s Jacob naturally lending his august presence.

Then there was a soirée dansante held in the Batavia Plant and Animal Garden on 27 May. Usually this would be an uneventfully happy evening - but as it happened a small shadow was cast over it too. Not, however, by Krakatoa. Most of the guests had been hoping to see the Royal Bengal Tiger that, famously, had been presented to the garden earlier in the month by a German philanthropist named Mr Schroder. But the Garden announced that it had neither the space nor the wherewithal for housing this very large and fierce animal, and the curator ordered it to be put on the next boat to Melbourne - disappointing the dancers, who had hoped it might enliven their evening.

Any sense of chagrin that might have been felt by the dancers at the loss of their tiger was quite probably offset by another, much more practically consequential announcement that was also made in May. The 985-ton British steamship, Fiado, under contract to the Australian Frozen Meat Company, had, its owners announced to the papers, been fitted with up-to-date refrigeration equipment and would begin a regular service to Batavia and Singapore, bringing cargoes of frozen beef, lamb, pork and poultry.

The first such cargo arrived on 20 July. To judge from the newspapers of the day, which greeted the docking of the Fiado as they might the unexpected arrival of a monarch or a star, a wave of gastronomic ecstasy promptly swept the colony. The Australian meat, never seen before, turned out to be of extraordinary quality. ‘Not even a large and well-bred Balinese ox could compete with this, a local gourmand was quoted as saying. Meat was no longer a luxury; henceforward every European in the colony could eat as well in Java as they once had in Amsterdam. Perhaps, now, even better.

The epicentre of Batavian gaiety in that summer of 1883 was the newly renovated and extended Concordia Military Club, the indisputably grand white marble building at the southern side of Waterlooplein, directly across from where the governor-general had his palace.

That year the Concordia ranked marginally ahead of the Harmonie, which was admittedly the older of the city's two great social clubs and remains the better known today; even though


The grand ballroom of Jakarta's Concordia Military Club.

the Harmonie's building was torn down in the 1960s, like that of the Concordia, the part of modern Jakarta in which it once stood retains its name. At the time of the Krakatoa events the fabric of the Harmonie was looking somewhat shabby, and the club was suffering from a temporarily declining membership. Far better balls and soirées were being held at the much swankier Concordia, where, to the delight of most Europeans who were invited, they were marked by a lavishness that often bordered on the decadent.

For example, there was a masked ball held at the Concordia on Saturday, 28 July, just before the arrival of the circus. Three hundred couples came, by horse-drawn carriage or in the back-to-back conveyance known as a dos-à-dos. The gardens were illuminated with Chinese lanterns, there were obelisks lit with piped gas, and a Turkish kiosk with a sky-blue cupola had been built for the outdoor band.

And inside - under the ornate ceiling and gas-chandeliers, within walls groaning with portraits and mirrors and statuary, beside rare plants, flowers and soft-coloured veils of gauze, upon a floor of polished teak squares dusted with French chalk - they danced - until the sun came up like thunder, as in the East it was wont to do. The women, the finest of all Batavian high society, were seen to be wearing dresses that, to the more matronly onlookers and chaperones, were positively outrageous. So short! they chorused next day. So delightful! the men reminisced. ‘If you want to enjoy the sight of beautiful pink satin shoes with fine ankles moving on the dance floor - go to the masked ball at the Concordia!’

The masks and costumes were as various as could be. One lady came dressed as a swallow, with a headdress and wings made of feathers from Anjer songbirds - birds that had lately been flying, in other words, in the turbulent volcanic airs of the Sunda Strait. Another, Madame la Diable, had black wings and gilded horns and a silk dress in black and red adorned with images of Lucifer. There was a Carmen, a Louis Quinze escorting an Italian farm-girl, buxom in gingham and Genoa lace. There was a toreador, a consistory of monks and a group of British sailors from a passing Royal Navy warship whom everyone thought were in fancy-dress, though they were simply in full fig, officially.

And as if this display were not enough - in the centre of the ballroom was a fountain gushing not water but pure eau de Cologne. This was by way of an experiment: a flower-vase was used as the centrepiece, and from deep in the lush enfoldments of its blooms gushed fountains of perfumed water that, when mingled with the scents of the assembled dancers, the cigar-smoke and the rich aromas of spices from the rijsttafel, made for a symphony of olfactory delights that… the newspapers, gushing too, found simply too overwhelmingly wonderful for words.

Then came August, and with it, at last, the circus. The company had come clear across the Pacific - one of their earlier performances had been in a small town outside San Francisco - and were in the East determined to make the best impression. And so every imaginable act was on hand: tightrope-walkers, fire-eaters, a pigeon-charmer, an American who could somersault over eight horses, the Nelson Family of Acrobats, Hector and Faue the Lords of the Trapeze, Fräulein Jeanette and Her Amazing Bareback Riders, William Gregory the Gymnast King, the Well-Known Sweetheart from Earlier Years, Miss Selma Troost - with Troost being the Dutch word for consolation‘, a commodity that many lonely bachelors thousands of miles from home would no doubt readily welcome.

There were a hundred acts in all, and twenty Arabian horses on which the performers might show their paces. There were dozens of clowns; and on 22 August the Batavia Cricket Club staged a match against the Clowns' First Eleven, all of them wearing their circus costumes. The Cricket Club won, handsomely.

John Holtum, known around the world as the Cannonball King, was perhaps the stellar attraction. He was a 38-year-old Dane who had developed the skill of catching a cannonball fired at him from the far side of the circus ring. The first time he tried this, the ball, which weighed fifty pounds and at the time it struck him was moving at more than a hundred miles an hour, took off three of his fingers. He was not discouraged by this setback, however; nor was he put off when a rival in an Italian circus was sliced in two by a grenade he was attempting to deflect with what up to the moment of his demise was said to be a powerfully muscled chest.

Mr Holtum persisted; and by the time he arrived in Batavia that August he was the world's acknowledged leader in this limited field of endeavour. He liked to challenge men in the audience to catch cannonballs: 161 volunteers in Europe and America had already tried but failed, and the few who tried in Batavia failed as well, including the promisingly named Mr Thor, against whose fingertips the ball grazed, doing him no harm but losing him his wager. John Holtum also liked large men to try to pull him off balance with a rope - they always failed in that too. But when the great Dane pitted his resilience against four horses harnessed to a rope, they pulled in so confusing and angry a way that he fell over, and was pulled around the ring, in an undignified pother, showing himself not to be quite as invincible as he liked his audiences to suppose.

For every single night throughout the first four weeks of August, John and Anna Wilson's Great World Circus staged a performance - two on Saturdays. And, such were the limitations on social life for Batavia's Dutch lower ranks, as well as for those members of Javanese society as were permitted to attend, that the newspapers reported each and every performance, in full detail, and with a tone of breathless excitement as if such amazements had never been witnessed before. The results of the steeplechases were published; the names of all those who challenged John Holtum, and the outcomes; the number of runs scored and wickets taken in the cricket matches with the clowns; and, of course, the outbreaks of bad behaviour and curious mishaps that seemed to attend this circus, in just this particular month of 1883, like rarely before.

The bad behaviour broke out within the first week. Without the guiding influence of the circus owner, John Wilson - he was overseas, recruiting more performers - the competing rivalries of the various artistes apparently spilled over into violence. The circus members all stayed at the Hôtel des Indes, said to be the grandest hotel in the entire Dutch empire, and the fighting first broke out in the bar. They were drinking champagne, the newspapers said, and arguing volubly over who was the funnier clown or the most adroit performer on the trapeze, when one of them, scandalized by a wounding remark, hurled a glass at the other. From then a full-scale donnybrook broke out, with wine, beer, food and fists being thrown in wild abandon. Mrs Wilson was hit in the face; one of the performers had his cheek badly bitten; the athletes battled the gymnasts, the horsemen the jugglers; and in the end the police had to be called. It was a sorry affair, and all Batavians loved every minute of it.

The fighting in the Hôtel des Indes coincided with a sudden quickening of the eruptive mood across on Krakatoa. After Captain Ferzenaar's visit to the island, when he had recorded the three huge craters, the fourteen new steam vents and the vast clouds of boiling dust, ships passing along the Sunda Strait reported new and dangerous-looking activity. One master reported a ‘vast eruptive column’ on the 22nd. Another spoke of ‘shakes and heavy blows’ on the 25th. There were ‘falls of ash’ and ‘a milk-white sea’ and ‘dull explosion’. Most ominously worrying of all - in Sumatra on the 26th, the last Sunday in August - a villager noticed ‘hot ashes coming up through the crevices in the floor of his hut’. Whatever was happening deep below the ground was clearly beginning to overwhelm the capacity of the surface to keep it under control. Something, somewhere, had to give.

It is said that animals are presciently aware of impending seismic doom. Catfish jump out of the water. Bees mysteriously evacuate their hives. Hens stop laying for no apparent cause. Mice appear dazed and can be caught by hand. Deep-sea fish are found at the ocean surface. Hibernating snakes suddenly reappear from their lairs, frozen to death if they do so in a harsh winter. Dogs begin to howl for no obvious reason. (A retired United States Geological Survey scientist collected lost-pet advertisements in American newspapers and claimed to find a correlation, such that within two weeks of any rise in the number of missing animals, there was an earthquake near by.)

There is no firm scientific evidence that there is a connection, nor is there a true basis for a new pseudo-science called ethogeological prediction, which seeks to forecast earthquakes by observing carefully calibrated animal activity. Yet not a few geologists do feel it is at least reasonable to suppose that the infinitesimal subterranean shiftings and strainings that precede massive eruptions or earthquakes can be sensed by animals long before being experienced by man or his machines. But no one has yet measured the link, if indeed there is one.

But in Batavia in that August of 1883 there was one animal that, for some unexplained reason, did begin to behave in a most unusual fashion. It was a very small circus elephant, said by his keeper, a Miss Nanette Lochart, to be the smallest trained pachyderm in world history. He had been caught in Java, and she had trained him in a matter of weeks. The entire company adored him, and the Batavian public - especially the children, who got in for half-price, with their servants admitted free - were captivated by the sight of this miniature monster juggling balls with his three-foot trunk, or stepping gaily from tub to tub as he negotiated a little obstacle course.

But halfway through his stay, both the elephant and his keeper began to behave most eccentrically. Miss Lochart began to believe that the other artistes in the troupe, their dander up after they had started fighting with one another, might for some reason turn on the elephant and try to harm him. Perhaps, she thought, they might try to break into his pen and give him poison. Despite there being no evidence, she decided to take evasive action.

And so, midway through August, when the ash falls and thunderings and pillars of flame were just beginning to be noticed once again in Batavia, Miss Lochart moved her little elephant into her room in the Hotel des Indes. He was, after all, her only worldly possession. She may have surmised that the hotel owner, a stern Frenchman named M. Louis Cressonnier, might take a dim view of an elephant in the hotel room, though no sign specifically forbade it. So she settled the animal down, said her goodnights, locked the door behind her and left for an evening of dining with friends.

The elephant, denied the company of his mistress, clearly unaccustomed to the luxury and comfort on offer in the East's premier hotel, and perhaps -just perhaps - sensitive to what was going on in the earth beneath his feet, promptly went berserk. He trampled through and across all the furniture in Miss Loch-art's room, smashing it to smithereens. He trumpeted. He roared. He stamped his not-yet-enormous feet so aggressively that other guests thought the entire hotel was about to fall down.

And in the end the Batavia constabulary were called. They found Miss Lochart; they demanded that she persuade her two-ton charge to leave the room without further ado; and M. Cressonnier further demanded that the entire troupe, and such animals that others among them might have sequestered in their chambers, leave the hotel forthwith and find other accommodation.

This they did. And no one thought any more about it.

Except that then shortly afterwards, on Monday, 27 August 1883, the mountain that had been grumbling and groaning for the previous ninety-nine days finally exploded itself into utter and complete oblivion.

For sixty million years the two tectonic plates that converge on Java had been grinding slowly and steadily towards each other, four inches every year. Now, on the very morning after the Great World Circus had given its best performance yet - with the artistes now all newly accommodated and the little errant elephant by all accounts behaving obediently and impeccably once again - the event that would be consequent upon all those years of subterranean shiftings and slidings was at last about to occur.