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Underwhelmed by the Volcano
By Margaret Black

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
By Simon Winchester • HarperCollins, 416 pages. $25.95

‘The day the world exploded” is just what I want. How enjoyable to relax in a lawn chair observing as others bravely battle the overwhelming forces of nature. Moreover, I’ve always been partial to Krakatoa, the volcano that spectacularly blew itself apart in 1883, killing more than 35,000 people. The author trained as a geologist, which meant he should know his stuff, and I didn’t intend to hold it against him that he went on to become a “full-time globe-trotting foreign correspondent and writer.”

Despite every complaint I’m about to make, Krakatoa has lots of interesting information: Winchester’s explanation of plate tectonics, the engine of volcanic activity, couldn’t be more accessible, and the accompanying diagrams are good. He relates most engagingly the history of observations and field work that led, in the 1960s, to scientific acceptance of this elegantly explanatory theory. Alfred Wegener, the man who first proposed the concept of “con tinental drift,” may have become the laughingstock of the scientific community, but that’s what happens, the author notes, when a generalist—Wegener was a meteorologist interested in everything—tries to tell specialists something revolutionary about their field.

When Winchester finally gets to Krakatoa’s big bang, he presents a richly complete description of the actual eruption and subsequent killer waves. He draws on marvelous eyewitness accounts, from people on shore trying to escape the tsunamis, to those on ships trying to stay afloat. A wonderful later chapter lovingly describes how living matter gradually returned to the remnants of Krakatoa. Aspects of his social and historical commentary have their charm as well, especially when he’s talking about science and technology.

So what’s wrong, aside from a suicidally dull start?

I’ll settle for three issues. First, Winchester constantly promotes Krakatoa as the biggest, the greatest, the most death-dealing—“Krakatoa killed more people than any other eruption“—but he knows that’s not true and even says so. The eruption of nearby Mount Tambora in 1815 blew up 150 to 180 cubic kilometers of material as compared with Krakatoa’s 20 cubic kilometers, putting it a whole rank higher on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. Tambora also slaughtered more people—the numbers range from Winchester’s low estimate of 50,000 to the Smithsonian’s 92,000. Winchester even acknowledges that Tambora’s eruption produced “the year there was no summer,” when midsummer frosts destroyed crops and created famine conditions in New England and northern Europe. So he occasionally acknowledges Tambora’s power, but that doesn’t moderate his rhetoric in the bulk of the book.

This is too bad. The Krakatoa story is sufficiently dramatic without false hype. Moreover, it occurred smack dab in the middle of the Sunda Strait, one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, where lots of people experienced and wrote about it. Winchester points out what I believe to be the most distinguishing aspect of the Krakatoa story—that the European colonial presence and the advance of communications technology (telegraph, undersea cable) made this natural catastrophe into a media event that captured the Western imagination. Krakatoa doesn’t need to be the biggest; it was the best-publicized.

The second problem can only be called the book’s colonial attitude. Yes, Dutch colonialists and various ships’ captains kept the lavish records and maintained the communications with the rest of the world that made Krakatoa news. And the West at this time pretty much had a lock on modern scientific enquiry. But that doesn’t excuse Winchester’s approach. He begins his tale when Europeans arrive in southeast Asia, as though Krakatoa didn’t exist until observed by Westerners. When he does reach back into the native past, he’s rhetorically dismissive of local cultural attitudes and histories. It would be hard to find any book nowadays that’s as dense as this one about colonial relations. When all hell breaks loose on Krakatoa, for example, Winchester accepts without comment Dutch remarks that the natives are universally terrified. Doubtless they were, but so, obviously, were others, like the British naval captain who writes, “I am convinced that the Day of Judgment has come.”

Winchester himself tells of a Javanese lighthouse keeper whose desperately necessary lighthouse was destroyed early in the eruption, killing the man’s wife and child. Apparently not completely panicked, the keeper got a temporary light going within a matter of hours. What to me looks like responsibility, grit and determination is described by the author as “the phlegmatic way of both the well-trained lighthouse keeper and the fatalistic acceptance of the true Javanese.” Winchester examines subsequent Islamic anticolonialism with all the trendy thinness of Parade magazine.

And lastly, there’s the problem of maps. Usually I rant about their absence. Winchester’s book has maps in abundance, but just about every one is useless. One is even oriented so that north points vaguely southwest. Most are bad reproductions of elaborate historical maps that can’t be read, even with a magnifying glass. Place names change (Dutch, local) and spellings vary (Krakatoa, Krakatua). The author settles on names and spellings in the text, but these don’t carry over to the maps. Many important places don’t appear on any map. No map indicates Krakatoa by name in the Sunda Strait. The publisher should have eliminated the tiresome pictures of Charles Darwin and the Grand Ballroom of the Concordia Club and paid for a simple, clear rendering of the geographical area.

Yes, I still read Krakatoa to the end, and, yes, I even recommend it. But given what the author can do—compare his exciting closing story of going out to the newly forming Anak Krakatoa with his appallingly dull opening—he could have written a much better book.

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