A vivid reconstruction of a volcanic explosion felt around the world—and a tale of curious twists it is.
One of the most entertaining science-explainers at work today, Winchester (The Map That Changed the World, 2001, etc.) brings fine credentials to bear on writing the story of Krakatoa: both a former Asia correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and an Oxford-trained geologist, he has an eye for the local and global significance of that volcano’s cataclysmic eruption 120 years ago. Dotting his narrative with learned asides and digressions (including a lively account of a volcano-hunting field trip to Greenland in his student days), Winchester carefully builds a dramatic tale that begins with a few rumblings and ends with the end of the world as the Spice Islanders knew it. Like the volcano, his story takes its time in building force, but it steadily gathers strength while giving the reader a crash course in tectonic theory, continental drift, volcanism, and other elemental matters. Winchester seeds that story with all manner of curious actors, including a hapless fellow who, in one of the giant tsunamis generated by the eruption, “reportedly found himself being swept inland next to a crocodile: He clambered on to its back and hung on for grim death with his thumbs dug deep into the creature’s eye-sockets.” Not only did the explosion lead to the erasure of the volcanic island of Krakatoa from the world map and kill nearly 40,000 people, Winchester writes, but it was also felt halfway around the world, with its plume of ash and smoke blackening the skies over London and New York. Moreover, he adds, the explosion caused a wave of anti-Western violence in predominantly Muslim Indonesia, perhaps contributing to the eventual expulsion of the Dutch colonialists from the islands. Though widely reported at the time and even today a byword for natural disaster, the explosion of Krakatoa figures only occasionally in the literature, Winchester writes—and, he adds, in a terrible disaster movie of the 1960s, which “for some reason . . . enjoys the status of a minor cult classic” in Britain.
Supremely well told: a fine exception to the dull run of most geological writing.