Sun, 03 Aug 2003

'Krakatoa': An intriguing look at the explosion

Caroline Cooper, Contributor, Jakarta

------------------------------------------------------- Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883 Simon Winchester Harper Collins, 2003 416 pp --------------------------------------------------------

The bare facts associated with Krakatoa's 1883 eruption describe a force so powerful that indeed it could be heard across the region and into India.

To wit, six cubic miles of rock and ash (nearly the sum total of the island's material) flew up to twenty feet into the air, waves nearly (and in one case over) one hundred feet high were thrown in every direction radiating out from the site, killing 36,000 of the 37,000 people to die with the eruption, and whole floating islands of pumice washed up on the shores of Zanzibar, the skeletons of Indonesian people and animals entombed inside.

Firefighters in the United States raised the alarm a dozen or more times on fires seen far in the distance, disturbances that were little more than the spectacular sunsets the eruption was to produce around the world.

The startling numbers and facts are, however, just a platform for Simon Winchester in his latest book, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883. With fluid writing, perhaps not commonly found among those trained in geology, Winchester steps back from the eruption to illuminate the land and its people before ash, lava and saltwater changed everything.

The book builds unhurriedly to the moment of eruption, describing first the strange tussle for Dutch control of spices, and later the inhabitants of Indonesia. Equally central are the technological developments that would later facilitate rapid worldwide knowledge of the massive explosion (such that only four hours later, residents of Boston saw the event splashed across their front pages and were talking excitedly about places not previously pronounceable).

The theory of shifting plate tectonics and the Wallace Line (that imagines a significant split in biodiversity down the archipelago) suggested several decades in advance the enormous amount of tension building under the earth's surface in this region, confirmed by Krakatoa's eruption.

"It does play, if unwittingly, a very significant part in the much newer theory of plate tectonics, the evolution of the earth," he writes.

While even today it is impossible to predict exactly when a volcano will erupt, scholarship from this time tells us why.

Beyond the scientific and technological advancements that describe Krakatoa's chaotic awakening, however, are the social components of the story.

Winchester, unusually, accesses his subject through tireless trolling through archives and personal letters in Holland (he placed ads in Amsterdam's local papers, soliciting personal documents from ancestors based in Indonesia and was overwhelmed by the response).

Moreover, his research in Indonesia uncovers a complicated social reaction to the eruption, with Muslim scholars such as West Java's Abdul Karim interpreting the eruption as a heavenly sign of displeasure with Indonesia's position as a colonial subject.

Winchester links the explosion of Krakatoa with "extreme religious zeal" and "weirdly fanatical anger" in some curious ways. In what is his most delicately written passage, Winchester describes the shifting social tide against the Dutch and draws an arch of rising Muslim militancy through the Revolt of Banten in 1888 and on to the present.

While this assertion, perhaps, deserves closer scrutiny, particularly in the light of the purely nationalist sentiment that would shape the emerging nation as much as Islamic belief, Winchester makes a compelling case in linking the destruction of Krakatoa with the fall of the Dutch.

Krakatoa is a crucial, current look at an event that rocked Indonesia and yet remains largely dormant in the public consciousness. With wit and grace, Winchester probes the multiple dimensions of the mountain's eruption, leading the reader all over the world in a wild tale replete with geological detail, social relevancy and a circus troop from Scotland.

The book is the creation of Winchester's longstanding interest in Indonesia, dating to the 1970s when he worked as a reporter in the region and first examined the slopes of Krakatoa. Perhaps the steady rise of Anak Krakatoa, the lesser volcano to spring from Krakatoa's eruption, will coax him back again to revisit the unending development of the earth's surface -- and the many narratives people tell to understand it.