Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded

I did occassionally tweet whilst reading this one:

krakatoa-elephant

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
Simon Winchester
(Penguin, 2004)

In 1883, Krakatoa exploded. It wasn’t actually the biggest volcanic eruption ever recorded but it was the first to happen with something resembling modern media to report on it. Winchester explores not only the geophysics of Krakatoa – much of which has only come to be understood in the last fifty years – but the cultural, political and botanical impact of it. Why did it blow, and why is it so iconic?

There’s a lot to unpack here and the book looks at, amongst other topics: the colonial history of the East Indies; theories of geology including plate tectonics; Darwinism and the Wallace line; undersea telegraphs; Javan and Sumatran religious beliefs; and the touring circus whose elephant trainer tried to house her upset baby elephant in her hotel room (see screencap).

Is all of this relevent? Maybe not if you just want to know what happened. The short version is that the island of Krakatoa is thrown up by two tectonic plates meeting and sometimes the pressure explodes so violently the island is destroyed. When that happened in 1883, a massive tsunami hit the coasts of Java and Sumatra resulting in a horrific loss of life. But the short version doesn’t place you there.

By delving into all the different contexts of the explosion, Winchester recreates a sense of place, time and culture and enables you to empathise with the people who witnessed Krakatoa and understand why it still resonates today. He does this with charm, self-deprecation and without becoming bogged down in the science. You’re not entirely sure where a chapter is going at first, or how it connects, but by the end you’ve gained a real understanding of a complex historical event.

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