eBook - ePub


Simon Winchester

  1. 464 páginas
  2. English
  3. ePUB (apto para móviles)
  4. Disponible en iOS y Android
eBook - ePub


Simon Winchester

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The bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and The Map That Changed the World examines the enduring and world-changing effects of the catastrophic eruption off the coast of Java of the earth's most dangerous volcano -- Krakatoa.

The legendary annihilation in 1883 of the volcano-island of Krakatoa -- the name has since become a byword for a cataclysmic disaster -- was followed by an immense tsunami that killed nearly forty thousand people. Beyond the purely physical horrors of an event that has only very recently been properly understood, the eruption changed the world in more ways than could possibly be imagined. Dust swirled round die planet for years, causing temperatures to plummet and sunsets to turn vivid with lurid and unsettling displays of light. The effects of the immense waves were felt as far away as France. Barometers in Bogotá and Washington, D.C., went haywire. Bodies were washed up in Zanzibar. The sound of the island's destruction was heard in Australia and India and on islands thousands of miles away. Most significant of all -- in view of today's new political climate -- the eruption helped to trigger in Java a wave of murderous anti-Western militancy among fundamentalist Muslims: one of the first outbreaks of Islamic-inspired killings anywhere.

Simon Winchester's long experience in the world wandering as well as his knowledge of history and geology give us an entirely new perspective on this fascinating and iconic event as he brings it telling back to life.

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The Paroxysm, the Flood, and the Crack of Doom


The death throes of Krakatoa lasted for exactly twenty hours and fifty-six minutes, culminating in the gigantic explosion that all observers now agree happened at 10:02 A.M. on Monday, August 27, 1883. The observers, as is often the way of such things, agree on precious little else. Thousands of people, far and wide, suddenly became aware of the events in the Sunda Strait—but their accounts of it, like the accounts of any monstrous and traumatizing event, present today a morass of conflict and confusion.
The countdown to the final hours of the mountain’s existence properly began at 1:06 P.M. the previous day, Sunday. All across the colony, Dutchmen and Javanese alike were looking innocently forward to the long lazy stretch of the afternoon of a much-needed day of rest.
The first indications that all was not right became apparent more or less simultaneously to a number of people nearby. They were at the time almost all completing the last moments of their familiar Sunday ritual: pushing their chairs away from the luncheon-table, folding their napkins, draining the last dregs of the coffee, standing up and stretching their legs, picking up their cigars, dogs, and wives for the Dutch tradition of the afternoon family walk.
In Anjer, from where most of those very early reports originated, the relaxed mood of the afternoon must have seemed peculiarly suited to the place. Anjer was a sedate, pretty little port town, as pleasant a posting for a visiting Dutchman as it might be possible to find. It was situated in a shallow bowl in the volcanic coastal range, a place where the hills dipped steeply down to the sea and formed a cozily protective natural harbor. The beaches were wide and white, the fringing palm trees leaned into the trade winds, there were flowers and banyan trees and a paradise of birds, and everywhere a heavenly scent of spices.
The local people lived in kampongs of small thatched cottages, the colonials in neat white stucco houses with red roofs. The finer of these mansions—some, like that of the assistant resident,* sporting a Dutch flag flying from a staff in the middle of its magnificent lawns and a private dock with the official’s impeccably maintained launch—could be seen to best advantage from out at sea, where they seemed separated from one another by acres of deep green jungle. There was usually a flag signal flying from the pilot station that spelled out: CALL HERE FOR MAIL; and the inbound oceangoing ships would indeed invariably call, their presence giving an air of vibrancy to the town; and, because they were stopping for orders and not for stevedores, Anjer was free of the slums and squalor of a cargo port.
The Europeans, in their white tropical suits and topis, would leave their houses—servants had Sundays off—and saunter of an afternoon along broad seafront avenues, under groves of tamarind trees. There would be crowds of local Javanese, children running everywhere, pye-dogs sleeping under upturned boxes, chickens, pigs, goats, creaking bullock carts, insistent pavement salesmen—all the carefree magic of an Eastern street, in other words, out for entertainment and fun on what seemed likely to be an easy, lazy summer Sunday.
Relations between colonizers and colonized in the East Indies were less than perfect—indeed much less than perfect, for the Dutch were not very kindly in the ways they wielded their imperial powers, and they are consequently remembered with much less affection today than are most of those other Europeans who ruled far-flung territories around the globe. Yet, by all accounts, on this particular Sunday any feelings of antipathy were soothed and muted by the holiday mood. People smiled at one another, Dutchmen muttered cordial greetings to Javans, everyone sauntered contentedly along in the broad heat of the early afternoon.
And then, without warning, from out to sea in the west—a sudden sound.
The first two accounts to be written were of a kind that was to be repeated, in essence, many dozens of times that day. “We plainly heard,” wrote one, “the rumbling of an earthquake in the distance.” “We didn’t take much notice at first,” wrote a second, “until the reports got very loud.”
The newly appointed Anjer telegraph master, Mr. Schruit, was once again idling on the veranda of the Anjer Hotel, which was owned by his new friend, the confusingly named Mr. Schuit, the local Lloyd’s agent. It was clearly Schruit’s preferred place to spend his Sunday mornings. He was a young man, and cut rather a lonely figure. His wife and children were still in Batavia, and, after weeks of searching, he had only now found them a suitable house in Anjer, and was at long last now looking forward to a family reunion.
But until then, as for the past few months, his holiday Sundays were spent on the veranda, puffing on a cheroot, gazing out at the view. Three months earlier he had been there too, trying under Schuit’s tutelage to decipher the flag message that was flying from the yards of the German warship Elisabeth, then sailing down the strait—a message that almost certainly told of the first eruption. He did nothing about it then: He was new to the area, he was not on duty, and in any case the local Lloyd’s agent had the matter in hand, was well able to read the Elisabeth’s flags, and was already sending his historic dispatch about what the telegraph operators would mis-read as “Krakatan” spewing out its great clouds of smoke and ash.
But on this occasion Schruit was on duty, and much more observant than before. He remembered later seeing a fully rigged barque heading north, a billow of white sails gliding along the blue mirror of the sea. Then he spied the much less pretty steamer Gouverneur-Generaal Loudon, the locally familiar government-chartered vessel that had taken the eighty-six tourists to Krakatoa back in May, heading into Anjer port.
(On this occasion she was undertaking more mundane and customary tasks: first picking up a hundred coolies who had been hired to help build a local lighthouse and ferrying them across the strait; then going on up the eastern Sumatran coast to the trouble-some region of Aceh, in the north, and there delivering, among others, some three hundred miscreants, all members of a chain gang destined to be put to work on a variety of government building sites.)
It was at the very moment when Schruit was watching the Loudon steaming toward the safety of port that there came the first roar of an explosion.
It was an extraordinary sound, he thought: far, far louder than anything he recalled from before. He looked sharply over to his left and saw, instantly, the unforgettable sight of a tremendous eruption. To judge from the billows of white smoke that were now tumbling up from the mountain—“as if thousands of white balloons had been released from the crater”—it was a far, far larger eruption than anything he had witnessed when he was standing at this exact spot back in May.
Moreover, whatever was happening on the mountain was also having an immediate effect on the sea. It was rising and falling, strongly, irregularly, in bursts of sudden up-and-down movements of the seawater that seemed immediately unnatural and sinister. It wasn’t tide or wave or wash: It was some terrific disturbance, and the water was slopping up and down, dangerous and unpredictable.
He ran down to the beach, where he had spied his deputy telegraphist watching the eruption, transfixed. He said he too was utterly perplexed by the movement of the sea. Perhaps the tide was on the turn, he said. But as he said so a furious rush of water roared toward them, sending them scurrying back up to the roadway. The two men ran to the small white stone building that was the Anjer telegraph office—and, as they did so, the enormous cloud from the volcano began to drift down on them. Within moments all Anjer was enveloped in dust and cloud and became strangely dark.
Some remember the cloud as black; others, like Schruit, are equally certain it was white. One of the pilots waiting for orders at the Anjer pilot station, a Mr. de Vries, swore it alternated in color, from white (when presumably it was largely made up of steam) to black (when it was composed largely of eruptive smoke). But no matter: It was so thick and heavy that within moments an artificial night had descended on Anjer port, and the two men who groped their way to the cable office then found they had to light lanterns, in the middle of the afternoon, in order to be able to send their first message. They timed it at 2:00 P.M. Krakatoa, they tapped out in urgent Morse to their head office in Batavia, was beginning a major eruption. It was “vomiting fire and smoke.” It was so dark in town that it was now no longer possible to see one’s hand before one’s eyes. What were the instructions?
Batavia replied, with equal urgency. Yes, they had already become aware that something was taking place. The governor-general himself, his Sabbath ease disturbed, had been inquiring. People were milling about in the streets, worried. Chinese traders in particular seemed to have a peculiar sense of unease: The cable office reported hearing wailing. So it was important for Anjer to keep its telegraph station open and the information coming in, the operator tapped out. For the next six hours the operators did just that, giving the Dutch officials in Weltevreden (the name, “Well Contented,” must have prompted on this occasion a sardonic smile or two) a moment-by-moment chronicle, in the staccato language of the telegraph, of the unfolding events. “Detonations increasing in loudness.” “Hails of pumice.” “Rain of coarse ash.” “First flooding.” “Vessels breaking loose in harbor.” “Unusual darkness.” “Gathering gloom.”
The Anjer harbormaster, who was by now aware that the crisis was frightening many of his friends and colleagues—“the Day of Judgment has come” was a common belief—tried to collect as many of the local expatriates together as he could, to reassure them. How he imagined he might accomplish this is left unsaid. But he did manage to assemble a fair number of the colonial establishment—the assistant resident, the public works supervisor, the lighthouse keeper, the registrar, the town clerk, a local doctor, and a prominent local widow—and tried to tell them that what they were witnessing would soon blow over, that it was, in his considered and experienced view, nothing to worry about. He could hardly have been more wrong.
At 2:45 P.M. the Loudon, all passengers aboard, set off for the forty-mile journey to the port of Telok Betong, at the head of Lampong Bay across in Sumatra. Her master, Captain Lindeman, steamed well to the east of the exploding island, trying as best he could to avoid the showers of rock and ash cascading down from the plumes of smoke. One British ship in the vicinity, the Medea, estimated that by midafternoon the column had risen to a height of seventeen miles, more than three times the height of Mount Everest; the Medea’s Captain Thomson said there were “electrical displays” in the cloud, and explosions every few minutes were shaking his ship—even though he was at the time at anchor off Batavia, more than eighty miles to the east.
In the center of the capital, meanwhile, people were very rapidly becoming aware that matters were getting out of hand. Two seasoned observers of Krakatoa’s earlier throat-clearings—Dr. J. P. van der Stok down at the observatory in Batavia and the mining engineer Dr. Rogier Verbeek up in the hills above town—had already telegraphed each other to find out what was going on. Van der Stok—the man whose wife had lost her Delft dinner plate in the May eruption and who himself had noted with great precision the time of the very beginning of the earlier events—once again swung into official observatory mode, even though once again this was a Sunday. He checked his watch at the very moment he heard the first loud rumblings, dashed from his house to the observatory buildings and wrote the time down in the official log: 1:06 P.M. That time remains today, etched in official records, as the one known certain commencement of Krakatoa’s final phase.
Confirmation of these figures then came from a totally unexpected source: the city’s gasworks, to the south of Batavia old town. They proved, quite uncannily, to be of the greatest use to scientists who later studied the eruption. And they did so, quite simply, because of the way they had been built.
The most visible parts of any plant that produces gas from coke are the tall drum-shaped metal containers for the flammable gas—containers that are in essence telescopic, which “float” on enormous ponds of water or mercury and which grow taller or shorter, higher or lower, depending on the amount of gas pumped from the works to be stored inside them. (Today’s gasometers tend to stand tall against a city skyline in the morning, fall gradually over the day as the gas inside them is consumed, and then are replenished as more gas is manufactured overnight. In those cities like Batavia in the 1880s that had gas street lamps, the profile of variations in pressure, and thus the times of the varying heights of these gas containers, would necessarily be rather different. They would stand tall in the early evening and fall away during the dark, during the gas-illumined hours.)
27TH. AUGUST, 1883.
The Scale on the original diagram terminates at the point marked, with a dotted line.
The invisible and inaudible pressure wave from Krakatoa’s cataclysmic final explosion, measured—until it blows off scale—at the Batavia gasworks.
What superintendents of gasworks have long known is that these storage containers—commonly, but in fact wrongly, called gasometers—also act as gigantic barometers. The pressure inside them, and in the lines leading from them, goes up and down by infinitesimal amounts according to the rise and fall of atmospheric pressure outside them. Normally one would never notice these small amounts of movement, since they would be superimposed on the much larger movements resulting from the consumption of gas. But an eagleeyed superintendent, in charge of arranging the pressure in the gas lines according to demand, could indeed notice. Moreover, a paper register of the gasometer pressure is always produced (and was, for most of the time, in Batavia), which would show all the movements with great precision.
The pressure records are being taken constantly, but they can in fact record the minute fluctuations in the atmospheric pressure (and hence also the fluctuations caused by an event like Krakatoa) only when the base pressure is low enough for the recording meter to be affected by them. The gasworks superintendent would increase this pressure each evening, when the street lights were illuminated; he would keep it high until the middle of the evening; and he would then lower it in hourly stages until dawn. So the best recordings of changes in the atmospheric pressure would be made during daylight hours, when the pressure in the gas lines was kept low because of the low demand.
Which is exactly what happened—after a hiccup. For there is no record, mysteriously, when the very first explosions occurred at lunchtime on Sunday. But then whatever problem existed vanished, and the recording trace begins properly at 3:34 P.M. Batavia time (which, since this was still some while before the formal international establishment of time zones, was a little more than five minutes ahead of Krakatoa time).* From that moment on until dusk, and then throughout all of Monday morning after dawn, the Batavia gasworks pressure gauge provides an incredibly accurate, minute-by-minute record of the massive air-pressure waves that radiated out from the volcano, each and every time it erupted. The paroxysmal eruption itself at 10:02 on Monday morning blew right off the scale: It caused a pressure spike of more than two and a half inches of mercury, unheard of in any other circumstance.
By five o’clock on Sunday evening, when in normal circumstances ordinary civil twilight would be only an hour away, it was, in fact...


  1. Dedication
  2. Contents
  3. Prelude
  4. One: “An Island with a Pointed Mountain”
  5. Two: The Crocodile in the Canal
  6. Three: Close Encounters on the Wallace Line
  7. Four: The Moments When the Mountain Moved
  8. Five: The Unchaining of the Gates of Hell
  9. Six: A League from the Last of the Sun
  10. Seven: The Curious Case of the Terrified Elephant
  11. Eight: The Paroxysm, the Flood, and the Crack of Doom
  12. Nine: Rebellion of a Ruined People
  13. Ten: The Rising of the Son
  14. Epilogue: The Place the World Exploded
  15. Index
  16. Acknowledgments, Erkenningen, Terima Kasih
  17. Excerpt from The Men Who United the States
  18. P.S. Insights, Interviews & More ... *
  19. Books by Simon Winchester
  20. Praise
  21. Copyright
  22. About the Publisher