We become glued to images of cataclysmic events, some natural, some man-made, and their aftermaths for days and days at a time, and we often wonder why we do this.
It’s really no wonder why we do this. The cataclysms we have endured since 2000 have not only destroyed, killed, and disrupted any sense of order we cling to, some have caused the Earth to skip heartbeats and lose memory, literally shifting the Earth on its axis and shortening the day by a nano-second. The Earth shuddered on Dec. 26, 2004, and on March 11, 2011, each as a result of 9.0 earthquakes and the huge tsunamis that followed.
The images and sounds are frightening and hypnotic. Then somehow, life returns and keeps going.
The first cataclysmic natural disaster that became part of the World’s nightmare through communication networks – the telegraph, newspapers, and first-hand accounts from survivors – was the volcanic Krakatoa’s final days in 1883.
Most of what I know about Krakatoa I learned from reading Simon Winchester’s 2003 Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 (ISBN0-06-621285-5), from which I have quoted and paraphrased for this post, as well as from book reviews and news stories that followed the publication.
The End’s Beginning
In May 1883, earth tremors were noticed, logged in by the lighthouse keeper at the Sunda strait between Java and Sumatra, and recorded in a telegraph sent by a Dutch controller, Willem Beyernick, to his superior. A few days later, a German ship captain reported a white cumulus cloud rising out of Krakatoa upwards of seven miles high. Beyernick’s wife kept a detailed journal that eventually became one of the rare eye-witness accounts of the beginnings of the end and of the end itself. After the May trembling, the Earth quieted down for June and July.
On August 11 a Dutch army captain landed on Krakatoa to prepare a topographic map; he found ominous signs, which sent him back with only a quick map that would have to do for the time being. He was the last human to touch Krakatoa.
On Sunday, August 26, a telegraph master was lounging on a porch, watching ships, when suddenly he heard an extremely loud explosion, looked to his left, and saw a tremendous eruption. He ran down to the sea where he saw very strange rising and falling disturbances. A surge of water roared toward the beach. He ran. At the time he got to the telegraph office, he saw a terrible and dark dust cloud beginning to envelope them. At 2 p.m., he tapped out his message that a major eruption was taking place, “vomiting fire and smoke.” Telegraph lines that weren’t destroyed became flooded with messages for the next 24 hours.
Frederic Edwin Church’s 1883 Sunset over the Ice on Chaumont Bay, Lake Ontario may have been inspired by Krakatoa’s resulting worldwide and extraordinary sunsets.
From midnight to dawn on August 27, Capt. W. J. Watson on the Charles Bal, which was trapped about 10 miles from Krakatoa and trying desperately to reach the Java shore, wrote a terrifying first-hand account that has survived. He described “impenetrable darkness,” “roaring of Krakatoa,” and a “peculiar pink flame” coming from clouds. Explosions and eruptions continued through the morning.
Four gigantic explosions occurred, starting at 5:30 a.m. The last one, at 10:02 a.m., is said to be one of the biggest explosions ever recorded. It was heard 3,000 miles away, about the distance from Miami to San Francisco.
Capt. Watson reported at 11:30 a.m. that “we were enclosed in a darkness that might almost be felt, and then commenced a downpour of mud, sand, and I know not what. . . .” “At noon the darkness was so intense that we had to grope our way about the decks. . .” unable to see each other. These hellish conditions continued all day and into the final night.
The four tsunamis that followed the four massive explosions are almost beyond comprehension. They killed 36,000 people, submerged about 300 towns and villages, and ranged in height from 72 to 135 feet high – mountains of water.
Most of those who survived these events were horribly burned by the flaming hot ash, dust, pumice, and other matter that rained from the sky all day and night.
The eruptions also produced two kinds of shock waves – air waves and sea-borne waves. The air waves traveled the globe seven times. Nine hours after the last explosion, boats were sunk or swamped in Calcutta, India; unusual waves were noticed in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
It was later revealed that the 2,600-foot mountain of Krakatoa had blown itself out of existence and left a hole in the ocean floor 1,000 feet deep. The ash and debris affected the climate and atmosphere around the world. Winchester suggests that the atmospheric effects in Europe and North America influenced artists and poets. For example, Frederic Edwin Church’s Sunset over the Ice on Chaumont Bay, Lake Ontario, painted in December 1883, captures the incredible sunsets that followed Krakatoa’s explosion for the next several years. It has also been suggested that the background for Edvard Munch’s The Scream, painted in 1893, represents the artist’s rendering of the volcanic sunsets.
Edvard Munch’s 1893 The Scream
Winchester also argues that the disaster of Krakatoa and the communication of those events ushered in what we now call the Global Village, a world created by communication and technology. Perhaps our rage for order compels us to describe cataclysms, communicate about them, study them, and watch as life returns and the human spirit not only endures, as William Faulkner said, but prevails.
As we watch the Japanese survivors’ determination to rebuild their lives, I think again of Krakatoa. It wasn’t too long before the site drew curious fishermen, mariners, and the scientists of the day. Krakatoa’s fate certainly informed the nascent sciences of meteorology and geology.
Then an amazing thing happened. In June 1927, the sea around the site of Krakatoa’s disappearance began roiling, bubbling, and spurting. Surely it must have scared those who knew it was happening. On January 26, 1928, land broke the surface and Anak (Child of) Krakatoa was born. Since then, the child-mountain has grown 20 or so inches each month. As Winchester reminds us, geology says the mountain will again explode, but geological time is a long, long time.
In 2006 the BBC aired a docudrama of the Krakatoa cataclysm using Willem Beyernick and his wife as the central figures. Clips of the production can be seen from the World News portal here. Below is the first clip.