Monday, 02 June, 2003

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded

I picked up Simon Winchester's new book Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 while I was browsing in Borders last week.  (Seeing what it's going for on Amazon makes me wish I would have ordered it there.)  Winchester is the author of The Professor and the Madman, which I reviewed here in November 2001.  I found the new book a much more engaging read.

The book examines the events leading up to and following the massive eruption of Krakatoa with an eye on the social and political goings-on of the previous three centuries.  There's a very good discussion of the geology involved (Winchester is, after all, a trained geologist), but that isn't the primary focus of the book, and in fact could probably be easily gotten from other sources.  I found two central themes in the book:

First, the news of Krakatoa's eruption was broadcast throughout the world within a matter of hours by telegraph.  This was the first time that a major event like this was so widely known so quickly.  In addition, the recent (at the time) development of reasonably affordable recording barometers and similar devices allowed people all over the world to see real evidence of the explosion.  For the first time, people could see the effects of events occurring on the other side of the world.

Second, the native peoples of what was then called the Dutch East Indies were, to put it mildly, unhappy with Dutch rule and were increasingly turning towards a more militant form of Islam.  The explosion of Krakatoa in 1883 fell nicely into a prophecy of disaster, flood, and death that was to signal change, and served to hasten the rebellion of 1888.  It would have happened eventually, I think, but there's little doubt that the eruption sped things along.

Winchester writes with an engaging style, with some humor and copious footnotes (I wish all authors would use footnotes rather than endnotes).  He manages to explain complicated geological concepts in layman's terms without over-simplifying them, and he well supports the themes that he introduces.  The book is an excellent read.  Highly recommended.